There are good reasons for revising the Endangered Species Act — it is slow and cumbersome for some developers and landowners, for example — but any such rewrite must be thoughtful and deliberate.
Reviewing 200,000 written comments, some of them dozens of pages long in 32 hours, as the Department of Interior says it did last week, is neither thoughtful nor deliberate and suggests the agency will merely rubber-stamp sweeping changes proposed recently by the Bush administration.
In August, the administration, through the Departments of Commerce and Interior, proposed to eliminate a key provision of the act, which requires agencies that promote development, such as the Department of Transportation and the Bureau of Reclamation, to consult with agencies charged with protecting wildlife. It called this a “narrow” update of the law, when in fact it would be the largest change in 20 years.
The Office of Surface Mining has more interest in allowing ore to be mined than in protecting animals. The Army Corps of Engineers is more concerned with seeing dredging projects completed than ensuring fish habitat isn’t destroyed. That’s why consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for projects on land, and the National Marine Fisheries Service, for marine projects, has long been required for work on federal land, paid for with federal funds or requiring federal permits.
The proposed new rules would eliminate all formal consultation, instead allowing the federal agencies to decide whether proposed projects pose a threat to species protected by the ESA. Informal consultations would still be allowed if the federal agencies overnseeing the projects wanted advice or review by the wildlife or fisheries service.
A major shortcoming of this proposal is that it aims to correct a problem that is more perception than reality.
Between 1987 and 1996, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed approximately 186,000 projects for possible impact on listed species. In only 5,046 cases — less than 3 percent — were the projects deemed to adversely affect those species, requiring formal consultation. Of these, 607 concluded that a listed species would be jeopardized, but most could go forward if modified. During this time, only 100 — 0.0005 percent of the total reviewed by the service — were blocked due to endangered species concerns.
The administration isn’t concerned with such analysis, however. Dale Hall, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said his agency’s goal was to deliver the rule to the White House next month. The quicker the rule can be made final, the harder it would be for the next president and Congress to undo it.
Congress should not wait to stop this unnecessary headlong rush to substantially weaken this important law.