Endangering species act

Budget proposal: Reforms needed, but Bush plan to reduce court backup strips important protections.

April 21, 2001

THE Endangered Species Act is in trouble of its own making.

The current clash in the Senate over who should decide to protect what species highlights a major problem.

It's not simply party politics. The Clinton administration last year froze new listings because it was bogged down by court cases dealing with the 1,243 plants and animals already on the protected list.

It claimed too few resources to catch up with mandated duties.

Using the same excuse, the Bush administration wants to relax deadlines and requirements of the 1973 law, giving federal officials wide discretion on actions. Its budget plan would curb the ability of citizens to get court orders to protect new species, allowing the Interior Department to decide listings of priority species and determine their critical habitats.

That may sound reasonable. Except that citizen lawsuits and petitions are the main ways that rare fauna and flora get officially listed and have habitat preserved under the act. Some 250 candidate species await review for listing as endangered or threatened.

The lawsuit process has encouraged costly, long legal actions that may skew biological priorities, and eat up the agency's listings budget.

It's a basic defect that needs to be addressed by Congress -- but not by this type of budget tinkering that has precipitated a Democratic threat of filibuster.

It's also troubling that Interior Secretary Gale Norton has argued that the Endangered Species Act is unconstitutional. That's the kind of red flag Mr. Bush knew would be raised when he appointed the Colorado conservative to this cabinet post.

If the president truly wants elbow room to clear the backlog and enforce the act, he could seriously increase money for the species listings program and tell GOP opponents in Congress to back off.

Since 1991, the act has been without congressional reauthorization.

The formation of a new bipartisan House group to draft proposed reforms sends a hopeful signal, something that's missing in this budget maneuver.

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