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The Planet

GOP Declares Open Season on Endangered Species

The Planet, December 1995, Volume 2, number 9

by B.J. Bergman

"Protection of habitat," declares biologist Laurie MacDonald, "is the foundation for protecting species."

MacDonald, who chairs the Sierra Club's Endangered Species Campaign Steering Committee, is restating what other biologists and most conservationists have long understood: no wilds, no wildlife.

But that's no concern to many in the Republican-led 104th Congress. Based on legislation introduced recently in both houses, GOP strategists seem bent on opening yet another front in the War on the Environment. They're not quite training their rifles on endangered species; they're simply targeting for destruction the ecosystems on which those species depend for survival.

"We know from science and common sense that habitat protection is essential to the recovery of imperiled wildlife," says John Leary, an Angeles Chapter volunteer who's put his life on hold to fight for species protection in Washington, D.C. His first real involvement with the Club came this past summer, when Club activists organized opposition to a series of trumped-up congressional hearings on Endangered Species Act " reform." Environmentalists and scientists were kept from testifying at the hearings, while a parade of so-called property-rights advocates -- ranchers, farmers and all manner of Wise Users -- denounced the law as an obstacle to development of both privately and publicly owned lands.

"We figured we were going to get a bill based on anecdotal horror stories," says Leary, who helped alert conservationists and media to the Republicans' kangaroo hearings. "And that's exactly what we got."

The bill in question is H.R. 2275, authored by Reps. Don Young (R-Alaska) -- the vociferously anti-environment chair of the House Resources Committee, who has made gutting the ESA his top priority -- and Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), who was hand-picked by Young to conduct the party's show trials on the 20-year-old law. Predictably, the law was found guilty as charged.

The Young-Pombo revision, says Leary, "is just a repeal of the whole purpose and intent of the original ESA. It dismantles the law."

Young, who voted in favor of the ESA in 1973, said earlier this year that he had "envisioned trying to protect, you know, pigeons and things like that. We never thought about mussels and ferns and flowers and all these subspecies of squirrels and birds." True to his word, H.R. 2275 would provide protection only to those species deemed worthy by Congress or key administration officials -- and only when doing so was convenient to development interests.

Among other things, the Young-Pombo bill includes a particularly egregious "takings" provision -- one that demands compensation for property owners when compliance with the law might reduce the value of even a portion of their land by just 20 percent. ESA opponents have long complained that the law is an obstacle to development; in fact, less than one project in 100 is halted under the act.

And where the current law makes recovery of species paramount -- a question of science rather than politics -- the Young-Pombo revision "turns the act on its head," adds Leary, by leaving crucial decisions to the discretion of political appointees.

Moreover, by hinging protection on species' overall numbers, MacDonald says, the House bill "sanctions local extinctions -- we could be losing animals and plants from a wide area of their range before we're able to act." In her home state, for example, the Florida black bear -- a subspecies of the American black bear that is vanishing from some regions, though thriving in others -- shares habitat with officially threatened species such as the Florida scrub jay and the Eastern indigo snake. Young and Pombo would make it virtually impossible to list regionally threatened subspecies like the Florida black bear, a failure MacDonald calls "a lost opportunity to protect so much else."

Incredibly, even such charismatic species as the bald eagle, the grizzly and the gray wolf would not automatically qualify for protection under the proposal until they had all but vanished from every last portion of their range.

A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences affirmed the need for a habitat-based, ecosystem approach to saving species, and the U.S. Supreme Court specifically upheld the habitat-protection provisions built into the Endangered Species Act. If the current law can be faulted for anything, insist conservationists, it's for relying too much on an "emergency room," species-by-species approach instead of focusing on ecosystems.

Young and Pombo aren't the only congressional threats to endangered species. Back in March, Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) offered his own legislation to cripple the ESA. Had there been any doubt about the motives behind the push for repeal, a leaked memo from a Gorton aide erased it by announcing the senator's rewrite had been "delivered" to his office by a special-interest coalition of timber, manufacturing and development concerns. As Gorton himself told one audience, "It doesn't undo everything that's been done, but I suspect it would end up having that effect."

Gearing up their damage-control machine, Senate Republicans have come up with a substitute measure offered by Sen. Dirk Kempthorne (R-Idaho) that lacks the public-relations taint of the Gorton bill, but retains its anti-ESA spirit -- as Roger Singer, conservation coordinator for the Club's Middle Snake Group, and D.C. staffer David Ellenberger can attest. Visiting with Kempthorne's chief legislative aide recently, they spotted a crayon board describing the thrust of the senator's bill. Beneath the well-chosen words was a universally recognized symbol: a circle containing the letters "ESA" with a line through them.

Notably, the hostility of some congressional leaders toward the nation's most comprehensive environmental law is not universally shared. Encouraged by Club activists and a changing political climate, moderate Republicans are increasingly rallying to the defense of the Endangered Species Act -- so much so, in fact, that House Speaker Newt Gingrich is said to be having second thoughts about associating his party with the trashing of the ESA.

"The worst provisions of Young-Pombo probably won't reach the House floor," predicts Marchant Wentworth, who's tracking the ESA for the Club's Land Protection Team in Washington. "The speaker sees the political downside of bringing this bill to a vote."

But the battle is far from won. Typically, the GOP leadership is using the budget process to slash funding for ESA implementation by 17 percent, as well as to extend a ban on listings through the 1996 fiscal year. And Wentworth, noting the back-door nature of congressional negotiations on the bill itself, warns: "There's still a chance the ESA could get mugged on its way to the House floor."

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