In its final weeks, the Bush administration is pushing changes that could decimate threatened Chesapeake Bay wildlife, along with 1,353 at-risk species across the nation.
The Interior Department posted a proposal over the summer for sweeping changes to the 35-year-old Endangered Species Act. They would eliminate mandatory scientific review by experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service of all federally approved development projects that might affect endangered plants or animals. Instead, the new rules would allow government agencies to decide for themselves whether their dam, highway, mine, drilling or logging project endangers federally protected species.
The proposal also states that if they are engaged on a project, Fish and Wildlife or National Marine Fisheries must reach a decision within 60 days, or construction can move forward without further study. This timeline is unattainable for these severely underfunded, understaffed agencies.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne called the new regulations a "narrow regulatory change" that "will provide clarity and certainty to the consultation process under the Endangered Species Act."
However, self-regulation by federal agencies with no expertise in wildlife, botany or ecology poses obvious problems. Suppose there's a proposal before the Federal Highway Administration to build a road through a meadow where bog turtles lay their eggs. Surveyors and bureaucrats will evaluate the impact. As long as turtles won't be paved over or drop dead on the spot, the project will be quickly green-lighted. That the area is a key nesting ground is a fact that agency "experts" would most likely fail to recognize, which is no small mistake when extinction is the consequence.
Despite administration claims, the employees of most federal agencies are not capable of assessing the needs of endangered species. Others may be biased against environmental concerns. For example, we learned in news reports recently that employees from the Mineral Management Service were literally in bed, partying with and accepting gifts from the oil companies they were supposed to regulate.
Taking wildlife experts out of the equation eliminates the checks and balances that have kept the bay's bald eagles, shortnose sturgeon, Delmarva fox squirrels, piping plovers and other rare creatures from disappearing. The watershed's health is already of concern, with habitat lost to development, dams blocking fish spawning routes, and pollutants and agricultural runoff fouling its waters.
Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, points to another concern: Agencies could revert to pre-Endangered Species Act tactics of cutting big projects into a series of small ones that fall under the radar.
The public largely has been excluded from the review process for the rule changes. The Interior Department is circumventing normal feedback methods by not allowing e-mailed or faxed comments or scheduling public hearings.
Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and other lawmakers protested to Mr. Kempthorne, asking him to abandon the plan, or at least to schedule public hearings and extend the review period to six months. Mr. Kempthorne extended the public comment period just 30 days, to Oct. 15. In September's Senate oversight hearings on the proposed changes, Interior Department witnesses declined to appear.
The proposed amendments mirror those pushed by industry groups over the last eight years, changes that the administration has been repeatedly unsuccessful passing through Congress. In this 11th-hour attempt to undermine environmental protections, congressional approval is not needed, and the initiative is on track to be shoved through before President Bush leaves office.
This is the latest effort by this administration to dismantle fundamental environmental laws and circumvent an honest discussion.
Sharon Guynup writes on science and the environment. This article was distributed by Bay Journal News Service.