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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Endangered Species Policy: An Act in Crisis

Air Date: Week of

Jennifer Schmidt of member station KPLU reports on the Congressional push to rewrite the Endangered Species Act. A series of public hearings on the act highlight what some say is bias towards industry in Republican proposals for changes in the law.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The long-awaited showdown over the Endangered Species Act has finally begun in the US Congress, amid charges that the legislative process is being unfairly manipulated. The conservative Republican leadership of the House has set up a special Endangered Species Task Force that bypasses the House Wildlife Subcommittee Chair, New Jersey Republican James Saxton. He opposed gutting the Endangered Species Act in a procedural vote in March. The man now in charge of House hearings on Endangered Species is California Republican Richard Tombeau a harsh critic of the act. Representative Tombeau says he is holding hearings around the country to involve more citizens, but critics say the hearings are stacked to favor opponents. Jennifer Schmidt of member station KPLU in Seattle has the story.

(A gavel strikes; a Tombeau speaks: "This hearing of the Endangered Species Act Task Force will come to order. I want to welcome all of you today to this hearing...")

SCHMIDT: This recent field hearing in Vancouver, Washington, was one of 7 held around the nation. The highly-charged atmosphere had loggers and Earth First members jockeying for seats in a jammed hotel ballroom in this small city in the southwestern corner of the state. California rancher turned Republican Representative Richard Tombeau chairs the special task force. He explained to the crowd that the panel chose to hold hearings in places like Vancouver; Bernie, Texas; and Belle Chase, Louisiana, because they wanted to hear from ordinary citizens.

TOMBEAU: Our goal in picking the locations of these field hearings is to take this task force to the people most affected by the Endangered Species Act. That means that we have taken these hearings to areas where there are significant numbers of listed species, and where the local people have had first-hand experiences in dealing with this Act and its workings.

SCHMIDT: These are also places where opposition to the act runs high. While those who spoke at the Vancouver hearing came from a wide range of professions: rancher, farmer, aluminum worker, most of them made the same point. That the Endangered Species Act needs a major overhaul. They're particularly angry at what they say is the current law's lack of concern for the effect of endangered species listings on local residents and economies. Opposition to the act is shared by the majority of representatives on the Republican-dominated task force: members like Barbara Kubin, a freshman representative from Wyoming.

KUBIN: Our government has become too large to set proper priorities when it can spend literally millions of dollars reintroducing the gray wolf into Yellowstone and parts of Idaho, when there are over 60,000 gray wolves existing on the North American continent. If someone draws an imaginary line around an area and a species does not exist there, and yet there are 60,000 on the continent, does that constitute that species being endangered? We have to answer that question.

SCHMIDT: But comments like this have led some task force members to the conclusion that the panel and the hearings are stacked against a strong Endangered Species Act. Most of the panel's Democrats avoided the field hearings; none were in Vancouver. Maryland Republican Wayne Gilcrest has also stayed away, calling the process unprofessional. He says there's a lot of misinformation going around, and emphasizes that many of his colleagues need an education about the long-term importance of intact ecosystems.

GILCREST: When I talk about the Endangered Species Act, I don't think just about a bald eagle or a spotted owl, but I think in terms of biological diversity. You need to have citizen input, but you also need, in my judgment, to have some scientists to give us some sense of what keeps this living planet alive, from rare species that provide enzymes to deal with leukemia, to the value of diversity to the region for economic purposes.

SCHMIDT: Environmentalists say they would have made some of these points at the hearings if only they were given the chance. But they complain that they've been all but shut out of the process. At the Vancouver hearing, only a handful of supporters of the Endangered Species Act were allowed to testify. Oregon resident Michael Garvin was one of two dozen environmental protesters who walked out of the proceedings.

GARVIN: We just felt like we were being gagged. We weren't being heard. The people that asked to testify at this hearing, like myself, just were ignored.

SCHMIDT: But Oregon's newly-elected Republican Representative Wes Cooley says he's been ignoring some members of environmental organizations on purpose.

COOLEY: I think we should a lot of times limit the big environmental groups. Because they have a lot of money and they're in Washington all the time. I come to these hearings because I want to hear from farmer Smith and from fisherman Jones, and everybody else of how this law has actually affected their everyday lives and their communities.

SCHMIDT: While Cooley says the House panel wants to hear from the little guys, it's big industry that's been having a say in the Senate. Washington Senator Slade Gorton is sponsoring a new Endangered Species bill, written by lobbyists for the mining, ranching, and timber industries. Gorton has admitted he allowed others to craft the bill, but says they were following his lead, not the other way around. Gorton's bill is expected to set the terms of the Endangered Species debate in the Senate, and it echoes the concerns expressed at the House field hearings. Senator Gorton says his bill would allow rare species to die out if protecting the species might put some people out of work.

GORTON: The decision as to whether or not people's lives ought to be changed or whether they should lose their jobs and their communities is of course a human decision, and it should be made as a matter of public policy. Scientists have no particular competence to make that kind of, come up with those answers. They should recommend what's necessary for the species, but people should decide what's right for people.

SCHMIDT: Gorton's bill faces uncertain prospects in a Senate where a strong Endangered Species Act has powerful friends, even among the Republican majority. But those eager to rewrite the Act may hold a trump card. Senator Gorton chairs an important appropriations subcommittee, and he warns that he and his allies could try to deny funding for any endangered species law they don't like.

GORTON: Neither I nor my House counterpart have any great enthusiasm for funding the present Act if its opponents refuse to allow changes to be considered.

SCHMIDT: The Senate is expected to begin hearings on the reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act at the end of May. Meanwhile, House members say they hope to have a bill to rewrite the law ready for action on the House floor by summer. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Schmidt in Seattle.



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