Government Agencies Must Consider Endangered Species Before They Act
Bid to Undo Bush Memo on Threats to Species
Source: New York Times
Posted by Elizabeth Fiend
By CORNELIA DEAN
A few weeks before he left office, President George W. Bush told federal officials that, in effect, they did not have to bother getting the advice of wildlife experts before taking actions that might harm plants or animals protected by the Endangered Species Act.
On Tuesday, President Obama said that, in effect, they did.
At a visit to the Interior Department marking its 150th anniversary, the president said he had signed a memorandum directing the Interior and Commerce Departments to review a regulation that the Bush administration issued Dec. 16.
The regulation lifted longstanding requirements that agencies contemplating actions that might affect endangered species consult with scientists from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service and to take their guidance into account.
Until the review is complete, Mr. Obama’s memorandum says, agencies must return to the former practice of seeking and acting on scientific advice.
In brief remarks, the president said he had signed the memorandum to “help restore the scientific process to its rightful place” in the working of the Endangered Species Act.
“We should be looking for ways to improve it, not weaken it,” Mr. Obama said of the act, according to a pool report. The president said it was “false” to say people must choose between economic growth and environmental protection.
The announcement drew loud applause from the audience of about 500 who had gathered for the anniversary ceremony. Thousands of other employees watched by teleconference and video, the Interior Department said.
But in a statement, Bill Kovacs, the vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, condemned the action as an unreasonable interference with needed projects.
“While real Americans are looking for jobs, Washington bureaucrats are debating if, for instance, a bridge project in Florida contributed to the melting of Arctic ice,” Mr. Kovacs said.
Arctic ice entered this debate last year, when polar bears were listed as a threatened species under the act. Critics said that as a result, the Endangered Species Act could in theory be applied to stop anything that might contribute in even a small way to global warming.
Republicans in Congress said Mr. Obama’s action could lead to needless delays in projects financed by the stimulus package.
But Representative Nick J. Rahall II, Democrat of West Virginia and chairman of the House Resources Committee, called Mr. Obama’s memorandum “a change for the better.”
Environmental groups agreed. Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, called the shift “welcome news.”
Janette Brimmer, a staff lawyer with Earthjustice, a nonprofit legal group that has challenged the Bush change in court, said the memorandum was “an important first step.”
Before the Bush administration’s action, Ms. Brimmer said, when agencies were told their proposals risked harming a listed species, they could ignore the advice but risked being fined for “an illegal take” if the species was harmed.
If the agencies acted on the scientific advice by, say, modifying their plans, they could obtain “an incidental take permit,” exempting them from penalties.
A rider undoing the Bush change has been attached to the budget bill, and if it passes, the change would be undone. But Ms. Brimmer said another bill had also been proposed that would reinforce the Bush change.
Because of this uncertainty, she said, Earthjustice will continue to press its lawsuit, which is being heard in the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California.
Ms. Brimmer said four suits challenging the change were pending in the court, three by environmental groups and a fourth by several states, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.