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

Court Investigates God Squad

Air Date: Week of

Henry Sessions of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports on the investigation by a Federal court into possible Bush administration interference with the Endangered Species Committee. The special committee decided last year to allow logging in 13 tracts of Pacific Northwest forest that had been set aside as habitat for the endangered northern spotted owl. Environmental groups say the Bush administration illegally tampered with the committee's deliberations.


NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley, in this week for Steve Curwood.

The economy versus the environment. The Clinton administration will try to resolve the long-standing conflict between the two in the Pacific Northwest in a few weeks, when the new President referees a one-day "forest summit." The event will bring the timber industry and environmentalists to the same table as part of an effort to work out a legislative solution to their differences. But as they're meeting, attorneys for each side will also be arguing in a San Francisco court over whether the last White House occupant had improper influence over decisions on the Northern spotted owl. Henry Sessions of Oregon Public Broadcasting has our story.

SESSIONS: Last May, the seven-member, Cabinet-level Endangered Species Committee, nicknamed the "God Squad," decided to allow logging on 13 tracts of Bureau of Land Management timberland in Oregon that had been set aside for the threatened Northern Spotted Owl. It was only the second time in the history of the Endangered Species Act that economic concerns were put above preservation of a threatened species. Not long after, environmentalists began quoting "unnamed government sources" as saying that decision had only come about after months of back-room arm-twisting. Victor Sher is an attorney with the Seattle office of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.

SHER: The issue is whether or not the Bush White House impermissibly interfered with the deliberations of the God Squad last May.

SESSIONS: To find out, environmentalists have challenged the committee in a federal appeals court in San Francisco. They charge that if all the talks between the White House and the God Squad had been out in the open, the 13 exemptions never would have happened. Victor Sher:

SHER: It's an extraordinary thing for the President of the United States to lean on decision makers, and it runs the risk that what you'd have set up is essentially two sets of books. You'd have the public record, which is the trial that occurred and all the evidence that was present and the testimony on the one hand, and then you'd have the secret negotiations or secret conversations between the White House and the members of the God Squad, which would reveal what really went on, but the public would never know that.

SESSIONS: The God Squad process was set up by Congress as a sort of safety valve on the Endangered Species Act. The committee is appointed by the Secretary of the Interior, and is made up of six federal officials and one member from the state where the disputed land is located. Environmentalists have argued that the God Squad is set up like a federal court, and the President has no business tampering with its proceedings. In February, the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco agreed, and ordered an investigation into whether secret communications took place. If the investigation finds that there were off-the-record communications, the court could reinstate the logging bans that were lifted by the God Squad. Timber industry advocates and US Justice Department lawyers who are defending the God Squad decision say they don't know if any secret communications took place. But the attorney representing the timber industry in this case says off-the-record communications would be a proper part of the President's role in shaping the nation's environmental policy. Perry Pendley is with the Denver-based Mountain States Legal Foundation.

PENDLEY: The President, with regard to an important decision like the God Squad, cannot simply sit off to the side and say, "I'm out of the loop." Or, "This is something in which I cannot become involved." The President of the United States' interest is not different from the interest of the American people, and that is that laws be faithfully executed and that the public interest be done. And we must take it on faith that the President of the United States is trying to serve the public interest in the decision that he makes.

SESSIONS: Environmentalists say especially in the case of the Bush administration they're not willing to take that on faith. They say the administration, and in particular Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan made no secret of their contempt for the Endangered Species Act. And they charge Bush and Lujan were trying to circumvent the act by invoking the God Squad, and then trying to influence the panel's vote. Though the amount of timber involved in the God Squad's decision is relatively tiny, the way the process was conducted and the court cases that have followed may shape the way the Clinton administration approaches forest issues. Dan Rolfe is an adjunct professor at Portland's Lewis and Clark Law School. He's written a guide for environmentalists on using and protecting the Endangered Species Act.

ROLFE: I think maybe a message to the new administration is if you're uncomfortable with the status quo under the Endangered Species Act, if you're uncomfortable with some of the limits that may put on timber, or other sorts of human activities, then it's conceivable you can alter that, but you're going to have to publicly change the rules. Take it to Congress, and if Congress passes it, well, then we have a new rule. But we're not trying to sort of circumvent the old ones that we don't like.

SESSIONS: Perry Pendley and other timber industry supporters hope the current court case will lead to the 13 timber sale exemptions being upheld, or at least a new God Squad hearing, which could result in some of the exemptions being reinstated. But it's unlikely the new Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, would reconvene the God Squad. Babbitt and others hope instead to come up with a package of forest legislation at the Northwest Forest Summit, striking a balance between timber interests and environmental protection, in a process the administration has promised will be open to everyone. Those on both sides of the forest issue say they're willing to give the summit a chance, and the long, costly, and so far not very productive God Squad process could spur them on to a compromise. For Living on Earth, this is Henry Sessions in Portland.



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