The countdown to January has begun, and the Bush administration is starting to roll out a long, foul list of last-minute policy changes. If its proposal to gut the Endangered Species Act is any indication of what it has in mind, we all have cause to be frightened of the next several months.
The proposal, which does not require congressional approval, would allow federal agencies to decide for themselves whether or not that highway, dam or mine they want to build would adversely impact any endangered species - instead of turning the matter over to independent government scientists in the Fish & Wildlife Service, the way that they've done for 35 years.
And if you don't think that the Department of Transportation or the Office of Surface Mining or any other federal department is more interested in getting its own projects done than in the fate of a rare fish or snake or bird, well, how much would you like to pay for that bridge that is going to destroy them?
What adds the insult to this injury is the rationale this administration has offered for these changes. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne expressed the administration's concern that the Endangered Species Act in its current form might be acting as a "back door" for federal agencies to assess the impact of greenhouse-gas emissions on protected species and their habitats. He added that the agency needed to "focus" on where it could "do the most good."
Federal agencies with the foresight to consider how greenhouse-gas emissions are affecting endangered species should be applauded and encouraged, not censored and shut down. Especially since so few of them have either the expertise or the inclination to consider the impact their projects have on endangered species - which is why those independent government science reviews came in handy.
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According to Michael Bean, the director of wildlife conservation activities for the Environmental Defense Fund, tens of thousands of federal projects get scrutiny from the Fish & Wildlife Service every year. It's inconceivable that we'd receive the same level of oversight if we just left the job up to each agency. And that, of course, is the point - for years, the Bush administration has sought ways to undermine the review process for habitat and protected species. In its own way, this move is breathtakingly brilliant: It allows the Bush administration to gut a law without having to answer for it to Congress, or, it turns out, to the public.
Of course, the Bush administration got some help: It has since emerged that this regulation was written in the Department of the Interior's Solicitor's Office. That makes sense - the administration was more interested in the opinions of lawyers than those of scientists about the real-world impact that this proposal will have. Their lawyers had better have a good explanation as to why there will be no public hearings on this issue and why the Fish & Wildlife Service is no longer accepting e-mail from the public during this 30-day "public comment" period.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and the chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works committee, called the proposed changes illegal. If the Bush administration manages to ram this through, we urge her to make sure that reversing it is one of her top priorities as soon as a new administration takes office.
Unfortunately, we fear that Boxer - and the rest of Congress - will have a lot to clean up once January comes around. If this proposal is any indication of what the Bush administration has in mind for its last-minute list, the next several months are going to bring a lot of pain for the environment, for animals, and for humans, too.
The Fish and Wildlife Service claims that you can still make your voice heard by going to the Federal Rulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov.
© 2008 San Francisco Chronicle