CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA. — Charleston, South Carolina -- George Bush was in the Pacific Northwest last week, chasing votes and damning the spotted owl. No one can reasonably object to a candidate's chasing votes, but I wish he would lay off the owl.
The president said he would ask for a major amendment to the Endangered Species Act of 1973. This would direct the Interior Department to make balancing decisions on the survival of threatened animals and plants. The department would have to weigh the environmental benefits of protection against the economic benefits of employment.
''It's time,'' said the president, ''to put people ahead of owls.''
At first glance, that proposition has the ring of common sense. Given an absolutely unavoidable choice between saving 10,000 jobs and plowing under the last known species of a figwort, most of us would go with saving the jobs.
But first glances often are deceptive. They miss a great deal. In practice over the past 19 years, administrators of the Endangered Species Act have quietly exercised the kind of commonsensical judgment that most observers would like to see. The extremists are not in the government. The extremists are out there in politics and in the courts.
In the matter at hand, the contending sides are hollering so loudly that the voice of reason cannot be heard. Spokesmen for the loggers and the timber industry are yelling their heads off. On the other side, the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife are howling with equal passion. The issue is wildly buffeted between Congress and the federal courts. In the process, the poor little unoffending owl is becoming a goat -- a scapegoat -- and the Endangered Species Act is caught in the middle.
It is not the owl that has depressed the logging industry in Oregon, Washington and northern California. It is the shortsightedness and greed of many timber operators. Left alone, they would cut every cuttable tree in sight. After a while there would be no cuttable tress in sight at all. By selling whole logs to Japan, these operators have taken work away from the mills. Some 26,000 jobs were lost before the owl got into the act.
In the field of conservation, the act of 1973 ranks among the towering legislative achievements of this century. It ranks with the development of national parks and the preservation of wilderness areas. In some quarters, it is supposed that the act is the work of wild-eyed liberals -- the Gucci-Pucci petal pickers that Jim Watt so roundly scorned. In fact, a prime supporter was James Buckley of New York, one of the most steadfast conservatives ever to sit in the Senate.
Under the act, 377 animals and 351 plants are now on the list of domestic species that are endangered or threatened. The law obligates all agencies of government to take steps to protect the remaining populations. Over the years, the Fish and Wildlife Service has made thousands of decisions to implement the act. Not more than a dozen have led to major controversy -- the snail darter, the dune mouse, the Mount Graham red squirrel in Arizona. The record is a record of responsibility wisely put to work.
Because of the law, future generations are now assured of a rich variety within our ecology. The grizzly bear, the red wolf, the giant condor, the bald eagle -- all these, along with such lesser creatures as rare snakes and wildflowers -- are surviving. In the course of time, millions of species will die out of their own accord. That natural process cannot be halted or significantly delayed, but we can protect and preserve. The alligator and the wild turkey once were doomed. Thanks to federal and state efforts, they thrive.
Technically the act expires next Wednesday, but the deadline is more apparent than real. Funds to administer the act must be reauthorized, and they will be authorized. The law has strong support in both House and Senate. This became apparent in the Senate on August 6, when Republican Slade Gorton of Washington sought to increase the salvage of dead and fallen trees.
This was another of those first-glance proposals that seem so reasonable. Mr. Gorton made an impassioned speech in which he charged the spotted owl with increasing alcoholism and child abuse in Washington state. Calmer voices replied that his amendment would derail encouraging progress toward sound forestry management. Senator Gorton lost, 60-35. On this issue, President Bush deserves to lose as well. He can get his votes somewhere else.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.