WASHINGTON, DC, August 12, 2008 (ENS) - The Bush administration has proposed sweeping changes to the Endangered Species Act, releasing a plan to give federal agencies the authority to decide without expert consultation whether their activities could harm endangered and threatened species. Administration officials contend the proposal will make the law easier to implement, but critics say the plan would undermine federal protection of imperiled plants and animals.
Announced Monday by the head of the U.S. Interior Department, the proposed changes would relax the current requirement that federal agencies consult with federal wildlife experts to ensure activities they undertake or approve - such as logging, mining and road construction - do not adversely affect listed species.
Thousands of such consultations occur each year, but the administration argues they are not worth the hassle.
"The existing regulations create unnecessary conflicts and delays," said U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who told reporters the proposal aims to bring the Endangered Species Act "into the 21st century."
Under the proposed revisions, federal agencies would be permitted to bypass the consultation process if they believe the action in question would cause little harm to listed species. If an agency chooses to skip consultation, it would be responsible for any subsequent harm caused to the species in question.
The plan also imposes new deadlines on federal wildlife agencies to respond to a request for consultation, requiring a response within 60 days. If they fail to respond within that timeframe, the project in question may proceed without their analysis.
"The proposed regulations will continue to protect species while focusing the consultation process on those federal actions where potential impacts can be linked to the action and the risks are reasonably certain to occur," Kempthorne said. "The result should be a process that is less time-consuming and a more effective use of our resources."
The proposal is in part driven by the administration’s concern about the potential use of the Endangered Species Act to force limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
In May, the Interior chief reluctantly listed the polar bear as threatened, citing evidence that global warming is melting Arctic sea ice and putting the ice-dependent bears at risk.
Such a listing could force federal agencies to consider the impact of greenhouse gas emissions of their activities on polar bear habitat, something the Bush administration opposes. When announcing the polar bear decision, Kempthorne suggested he would take steps to ensure that concern is eliminated - something the new proposal addresses.
"It is not possible to draw a link between greenhouse gas emissions and distant observations of impacts on species," Kempthorne told reporters Monday, adding that concerns about global warming should be tackled by new national legislation and international agreements.
Dale Hall, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, called the proposal a "positive step forward."
The existing consultation requirements were developed more than 20 years ago, he said, and federal agencies now have far more expertise to determine whether their activities imperil listed species.
The proposal would "reduce ambiguity, improve consistency, and narrow interpretive differences," Hall explained.
Environmentalists and congressional Democrats are far from convinced.
"With these changes, the Bush administration threatens to undo more than 30 years of progress," said John Kostyack, a senior official with the National Wildlife Federation, one of the nation's largest environmental groups.
Kostyack and other critics contend federal agencies do not have the expertise to assess the impacts of their activities on endangered species - and little interest in ensuring species are protected.
"These changes take unbiased, professional wildlife biologists out of the equation and put decisions in the hands of political appointees," he said.
Top Democrats offered similar reactions.
The proposal "gives federal agencies an unacceptable degree of discretion to decide whether or not to comply with the Endangered Species Act," said Representative Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat and chair of the House Natural Resources Committee.
The new plan is part of a larger effort by the Bush administration and some Republicans in Congress to overhaul the Endangered Species Act, which they contend is in dire need of reform.
But to date their attempts to revise the law have failed. A federal court struck down a 2004 Bush administration rule that sought to expedite approval of pesticides by revising the consultation process, and a Republican-led House bill reforming the law died in the Senate in 2005.
And last year the Bush administration became embroiled in controversy over alleged political meddling with Endangered Species Act decisions, forcing the resignation of top Interior Department official Julie MacDonald and the review of several endangered species decisions she made.
Critics say the administration has little interest in enforcing the law and is keen to relax endangered species protections in a bid to please homebuilders as well as mining and logging interests.
The new plan "repeats and includes all of the disdain for science and political trumping of expertise that has characterized previous Bush administration efforts to dismantle fundamental environmental laws," said Sierra Club President Carl Pope.
Kempthorne said such opposition to the plan was hardly surprising.
"There will always be criticism any time you suggest changes to the Endangered Species Act," he told reporters.
The public will have 30 days to comment on the proposal. The Interior Department will publish a notice of the plan in the Federal Register either late this week or early next week, says DOI spokesman Frank Quinby. Information on how to submit comments will be included in that notice.
-- By J.R. Pegg, ENS Washington Bureau Chief
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