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

New Administration Bolsters Endangered Species Act

Air Date: Week of

Michael Richards reports from Washington on the upcoming Congressional fight over reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act. In the face of strong support for the act from the Clinton administration, many opponents to the act seem to be softening their rhetoric.


CURWOOD: The Endangered Species Act is shaping up as another key environmental test for the new administration. The law was up for renewal last year. But with a hostile President, and election-year tensions over the spotted owl, Congress decided to wait before taking it on. As Michael Richards reports from Washington, there appears to be growing support for passing a stronger endangered species law this year.

RICHARDS: The debate, as framed by the Reagan and Bush administrations, was about the conflict between the environment and the economy. It's the way eco-debates have been framed now for decades, and might have continued to be, had President Bush been re-elected. But for the Clinton administration, as for much of the environmental community, the new approach is to reverse the terms of the debate and instead connect environmental protection and economics. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said as much about the Endangered Species Act during his Senate confirmation hearings.

BABBITT: When we start extinguishing links in the ecological web of the Western landscape, we take enormous risks and ultimately threaten our ability to live in harmony and productively in that environment. And I believe that the concept beneath the Endangered Species Act is sound and indeed vital to our economic interests.

RICHARDS: Babbitt will be the Cabinet officer most responsible for administering the Act. And his comments amount to the clearest and strongest Administration support for the Endangered Species Act in 12 years, according to Massachusetts Congressman Gerry Studds. As chairman of a House panel overseeing the law, Studds led last year's tactical retreat by those supporting a stronger Endangered Species Act.

STUDDS: There is a fundamental change now. I think that you don't have to orate much to see the difference between Bruce Babbitt on the one hand or Manuel Lujan or James Watt on the other. This is a sea change, if one can say that with respect to the land.

RICHARDS: Such strong statements from the Administration could encourage reluctant Democratic lawmakers to get behind the Act more forcefully. The Administration's statements are already reaching the business community. One representative of an important business lobby said new political realities are making for new strategies. While some, such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, still want endangered species decisions to be based more on immediate economic impact, other large organizations representing US commercial interests are ceding ground to the environmental community. They now agree that science alone should decide whether to list a species as endangered or not. Stuart Hardy of the US Chamber of Commerce says the issue now for business is getting clear and predictable guidelines.

HARDY: A critical element in this equation has to be to make sure that everybody understands what will be required of landowners and businesses in affected communities early on in the process, so that everybody has time to accommodate the listing.

RICHARDS: What business groups like the US Chamber of Commerce don't want are sudden changes that can lead to sudden shutdowns. This is what happened with the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest.

A broad coalition of environmental groups want to make the process more predictable, too. The way to do it, they say, is to adopt what's called an eco-system approach to protecting endangered species. It would identify critical habitats and set up broad protection plans long before a creature is so sparse that only drastic action can save it. Some business groups, including the US Chamber of Commerce, say they're interested. Pamela Eaton of the Wilderness Society says such eco-system approaches would both provide more predictability and greater protection.

EATON: You can get into a cascade of species in the same system, that if you could have addressed it in a broader sense, you might have avoided those species ever needing to be listed or addressed singly. We're seeing that in the Pacific Northwest, with the spotted owl, the marbled meerlet, the salmon, and then we have other species that are likely to come onto the list if we don't take a broader perspective in how we address the problems out there.

RICHARDS: That broader prospective will no doubt be a critical component of a Northwest forests summit that Vice President Gore is set to chair later this year. All sides hope to bring the thorny spotted owl controversy to a close during the conference -- thus relieving some of the tension surrounding the Endangered Species Act. No date has been set, although it's expected during the spring. Until then, deliberations about the future of the Endangered Species Act are likely to be put on hold. Massachusetts Congressman Gerry Studds, whose Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee oversees the Act, says the political climate just won't be right until the fiery passions raised by the spotted owl dispute subside.

For Living on Earth, this is Michael Richards in Washington.



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