Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Proposed Endangered Species Act Changes

Disclaimer: I work for an environmental organization. In the past four years, I have worked with a number of NGOs and a government environmental agency on wildlife conservation. Naturally, the opinions expressed here are mine alone and have nothing to do with any of my employers, past, present, or future. This goes for everything you see here!

Disclaimer 2: Big ups to Treehugger, the AP, NWF, and all the other organizations and publications who are covering this news.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is a hassle. It’s a great big roadblock in the way of land development, public works projects, new construction. It is often the bane of businesses, especially developers and construction firms.

And that’s precisely the point.

Originally enacted in 1973, the ESA developed a list of species threatened with extinction, rules for modifying the list, and regulations designed to protect listed species. In the last thirty five years, it has been the cornerstone of wildlife conservation law in the United States, providing relief for iconic species like the bald eagle. One of the things the ESA does is demand that anyone doing any kind of land development that might affect the habitat of a listed species must go through a strict (and often arduously long) vetting process in which United States Fish and Wildlife Service experts and independent scientists determine if the project will unduly impact the species. If you cannot demonstrate how your project will avoid damaging habitat or impacting endangered species, it’s a no-go.

As with any policy that slows development, the ESA has always had its detractors. Since its inception, developers (and their friends in the Capitol and on K Street) have tried to de-claw the legislation, removing its impediments to development. The most recent attempt took the Congressional route, with FORMER California rep Richard Pombo trying to pass an amendment delegating the federal government’s authority over the ESA to the individual states.

Pushback from environmental groups and citizens managed to derail this potentially disastrous amendment.

Anyways, this is a long introduction to the news this week: Seeing that they couldn’t accomplish their goal of de-clawing ESA through Congress, the Bush administration has decided to use technical wiggling to force administrative policy changes through the Department of the Interior to accomplish the same goal.

Read this next part carefully:

They want to take the vetting authority for ESA away from FWS experts and independent scientists and give it to…wait for it… the same federal agencies responsible for completing the questioned public works projects.

Wait, that can’t be right. They can’t be serious. They want to put the oversight role into the hands of the… people we’re supposed to be overseeing? That’s like giving the chief of police the job of investigating corruption in the department. Or, more bluntly, like letting the fox watch the henhouse.

This is not the first time the environmental movement has fought this battle. It will not be the last time. Like any fight, from wildlife to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to climate, it will come up over and over again. We environmentalists have to win EVERY TIME. They only need to win once. Once they drill in ANWR, or nuke the ESA, we can’t undo the damage. Not to be over dramatic, but the worlds environmentalists are the soldiers on the wall, trying to make progress while simultaneously constantly struggling to prevent irreparable backslides.

We need every single vote and voice we can get. Letting them win, letting them do their
permanent damage for some short term economic boost, would be a travesty. It would be the most profane thing we could do to our planet, and our children.