Since 1973, the Endangered Species Act has sought to protect plants and animals on the brink of extinction. Some of its notable successes include the rescue of the bald eagle, the gray wolf, the American alligator, the whooping crane and the grizzly bear.
Now, in its waning days in office, the Bush Administration seeks to gut an essential portion of the act, a move that would directly benefit special interests such as the timber, building, oil drilling and mining industries. If the administration can't be dissuaded from following through on this ill-conceived proposal, it should be challenged immediately in the courts.
Bush and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne have targeted Section 7 of the act, one of the key provisions in the law, which requires projects to be reviewed by independent experts before they can proceed. Under current law, federal agencies have to consult with Fish and Wildlife or the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine when projects would adversely affect a species or its habitat, and to require the necessary modifications.
In what Kempthorne describes as a "narrow regulatory change," no experts would be involved in reviewing new projects. Instead, in many cases, federal agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Transportation or the Office of Surface Mining would have the authority to green-light projects without consulting independent biologists or botanists.
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In many cases, agencies such as the Corps of Engineers are the parties proposing the new projects in the first place. Thus, what the administration proposes is allowing the foxes to guard the henhouse. This also amounts to an attempt to get around Congress, which, for years, has remained steadfast in enforcing the Endangered Species Act as written.
But commercial interests, such as developers, loggers and mining companies, always have viewed the bill as an impediment to business that adds to the cost of any project on federal land. And, of course, they now have an ally in the Bush administration, which has worked hard to guard their interests and undermine environmental laws.
This latest effort is nothing less than an attempt to rewrite the law by executive fiat. Americans who revere our natural heritage should demand that Congress step in to stop Bush from gutting a law that has stood between special interests and protected species for decades.