Endangered Species Act bill fights for life in D.C.
This story was published 7/16/02
Efforts to "reform" the Endangered Species Act remain alive in Washington, D.C., but may not survive this Congress, which is wading through a dozen appropriations bills, national security issues and corporate gamesmanship before adjourning to campaign this fall.
Last week, the House Resources Committee passed what is being called the "sound science" revision to the ESA, which long has been controversial for the sometimes-draconian measures that agencies use to help protected species.
The current attempt -- which is more specific than some provisions to gut the landmark act -- is the outgrowth of discontent over the water shut-off in Oregon's Klamath Basin last year and other federal actions that threaten resource-based economies in the West.
The bill, which passed through committee 22-18, requires the federal government to rely on field-tested empirical data in making major ESA decisions, including the listing of species and determining critical habitat that gets special protection. It also requires major ESA decisions be peer-reviewed by a panel of scientists -- a measure included to protect against unbridled agency action.
"Sound science has to be more than agency opinion or internal staff recommendations when there is so much at stake both in terms of the economy and in people's lives," said Dean Boyer, spokesman for the Washington Farm Bureau, which supports changes to the ESA.
It's the kind of legislation that's popular in the West, where residents have felt the full force the ESA for years, but time and again fails to move eastern legislators who rarely have to deal with protected salmon or spotted owls.
"If you represent an area where it is all block after block of office buildings, you don't have endangered species because you have paved over everything," said Todd Young, spokesman for Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash. Hastings co-sponsored this year's original ESA reform bill that was modified into the existing version.
Nor is the legislation popular with environmental groups which rallied 300 scientists to sign a letter condemning it. The groups also said they were prepared to defeat the legislation if it ever comes to the House floor for a vote.
Even if the House passed such legislation, the Democrat-controlled Senate would have to take it up as well -- an unlikely feat given the election-year politicking and the array of other pressing issues.
"Any passage is very difficult" in a divided Congress, said Jonathan Devaney, director of legislative affairs for the Northwest Horticultural Council in Yakima and a former advisor to Hastings. Still, he said it's very hard to predict what kind of language might get hooked onto another bill and ride through Congress.
Young said even if the current effort dies with this Congress, many key supporters will return next year and they still have at least one more term under a sympathetic president.
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