Lawsuits against Endangered Species Act approved Supreme Court OKs case based on economic impact

March 20, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Landowners and developers who think the federal government is doing too much to protect endangered species of wildlife have a right to sue to protect their economic interests, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

It flatly rejected the argument that lawsuits against the government under the endangered species law are open only to those who want more protection for wildlife.

There is no basis in the law, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, for confining citizens lawsuits "to environmentalists alone."

"All persons have an interest" in the environment, Scalia said, meaning that every one who has a grievance against the government for its actions on endangered species is entitled to sue. That includes those who think the government is engaging in "over-enforcement."

A federal appeals court ruled in 1995 that the right to sue under the Endangered Species Act is limited to those with an "interest in preserving endangered species." Thus, those who are seeking only to protect their "economic and recreational interests" are barred, it said.

The dispute arose when two Oregon ranchers and two irrigation districts in that state complained that the government had no basis for limiting the release of water from the Klamath Project in order to protect the habitat of two species of fish on the endangered list: Lost River suckers and shortnose suckers.

The Fish and Wildlife Service had found that flows from two reservoirs had to be curbed to protect those fish. Irrigation water releases were cut off during a drought in 1992, resulting in damages to ranchers that were estimated at $75 million.

Without water, ranchers had to sell off cattle they couldn't feed, and farmers saw crops die in the fields, Riverside, Calif., lawyer Gregory Wilkinson told the justices during oral arguments in the case last November.

In their lawsuit, the ranchers and the irrigation districts argued that the fish were doing just fine and did not need the government's protection. Their lawsuit was blocked before a trial.

With yesterday's Supreme Court ruling in their favor, the lawsuit can now go forward.

Pub Date: 3/20/97

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