WASHINGTON - A Bush administration plan to let U.S.
agencies decide for themselves whether their actions put wildlife at
risk is drawing fire from environmental groups, which say this is like
letting a fox guard a henhouse.
The Interior Department, one of two federal agencies pushing for
this policy change, rejects the environmentalists' critique, saying the
new rule would cut bureaucratic red tape and free government scientists
for more important work.
But a coalition of conservation groups sees the move as an attempt to gut the Endangered Species Act.
"This is exactly the fox guarding the henhouse," Michael Daulton of
the National Audubon Society said. "It's a scary proposition to think
about agencies with no wildlife expertise at all making decisions about
the fate of species, potentially leading to extinction."
The 35-year-old Endangered Species Act is meant to protect
threatened wildlife by relying on the best available science, the
environmentalists noted. Government scientists must now consult with
agencies on projects that could put species at risk.
The rules change could take scientists out of the equation, the conservation coalition maintained.
Audubon, which aims to protect birds, was among more than 120 groups
that joined to flood the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife
Service with 100,000 negative comments about the plan on Friday.
This flood of paper was timed to coincide with the end of an
official "public comment" period on the proposed rule change, which
ends on Tuesday. After that, it is unclear when or whether the rule
will be adopted.
'HAIL MARY PASS'
"This proposed rule change is obviously a Hail Mary pass to industry
friends in the final days of the Bush administration and it will fail,"
said Janette Brimmer, a lawyer with Earthjustice.
A Hail Mary pass is a desperate last-minute play in American football.
At the heart of the matter is the notion of dropping a requirement
for U.S. agencies -- from the Transportation Department to the Army
Corps of Engineers -- to consult with scientists before they take on
projects that could threaten wildlife on the Endangered Species list.
As the Interior and Commerce departments wrote in their plan,
released in mid-August with little fanfare: "We propose to add language
that action agencies are not required to consult on those actions for
which they determine their action will have 'no effect' on listed
species or critical habitat."
These two agencies set a 30-day public comment period, which was
extended for an additional 30 days. Conservation groups urged a 120-day
period for comment from the public and Congress, and said comments
should be allowed by fax and e-mail in addition to paper letters, the
only form now accepted.
"The abbreviated timeline and restrictive commenting options raise
serious concerns that the Department of the Interior is attempting to
rewrite a bedrock environmental statute without allowing for anything
approaching adequate public involvement," the environmental groups said
in a letter to the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service.
Chris Paolino, an Interior Department spokesman, said scientific
consultation occurs in the planning phase of federal projects, and that
these scientists do not simply "rubber stamp" government efforts.
The aim of the proposed rule change, Paolino said by telephone, "is
to streamline the process a little bit, remove red tape where we can
and remove the backlog of consultations that had developed over the
last 30 years and allow for those projects where there's an accepted
'no negative impact' to an endangered species to move forward."
The Bush administration has been widely criticized for its record on
endangered species. Since President George W. Bush took office in 2001,
58 species have been added to the list, compared with 522 during the
eight years of the Clinton administration and 231 in the four-year
presidency of George H.W. Bush, the current president's father.
Editing by Eric Walsh.