BOULDER, Colo., Sept. 30 (UPI) -- Part 3 of 4. The Bush administration says there are serious flaws in the way the nation goes about protecting endangered species, particularly in the designation of critical habitat and in providing incentives for landowners to protect wildlife.
"The Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are committed to achieving the primary purpose of the (Endangered Species) Act -- the recovery of threatened and endangered species, and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the ... act," Craig Manson, Interior's assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, said in congressional testimony last year.
Manson added, however, that although the administration considers "conservation of habitat ... vitally important to successful recovery and delisting of species ... (t)he present system for designating critical habitat is broken. (It is a) process that provides little real conservation benefit, consumes enormous agency resources and imposes huge social and economic costs."
One of the flashpoint issues under the act at the moment is designation of critical habitat, an action meant to protect land -- both public and private -- needed for the recovery of a threatened species.
On that score, and on environmental issues in general, conservationists argue the administration tilts toward industry and landowners on virtually every position -- including species threatened with extinction.
"This administration has the worst environmental record of any administration, and its record in the field of protection of biological diversity is terrible," Bob Irvin, the World Wildlife Fund's director of U.S. conservation for the World Wildlife Fund, told United Press International. "In virtually every instance where there has been a conflict between resource development and endangered species, the administration has chosen to further resource development over the need to protect endangered species."
John Kostyack, senior counsel at the National Wildlife Federation, told UPI: "They claim the ESA is broken without offering any constructive alternatives. In fact the law isn't broken. There are some remarkable successes. They never talk about those."
Conservationists point to a number of administration decisions they find objectionable:
-- Rather than appeal, the administration acquiesced to a court decision that required it to count hatchery-raised salmon along with wild stock when determining whether the fish are endangered.
-- The administration ruled that declining U.S. populations of the marbled murrelet, a sea bird that nests in inland old-growth forests, are not distinct from Canadian and Alaskan populations of the bird. This ultimately could reduce protections and open more lands in the Pacific Northwest to logging. This decision was a rejection of the scientific opinion offered by a substantial number of biologists.
-- In the West and Southwest, the administration has reopened consideration of critical habitat designations for the pygmy owl, the willow flycatcher and the silvery minnow.
"They are pushing for extensive analyses of economic impacts to delay and limit protection of habitat for endangered species," Irvin said.
Chris West, a vice president with the American Forest Resource Council, a group representing the Pacific Northwest timber industry, disagreed. Those analyses are a positive step, he said.
"We've been staunch believers that critical habitat designation does require an economic analysis," West told UPI.
He said the AFRC was encouraged by what the administration has been doing on endangered species and argued that a portion of the policy decisions had been ordered by the courts.
"They said you have to an economic analysis of the designation of critical habitat," he said.
Despite the outcry from environmentalists, West said the Bush administration has not done much, one way or another, to affect the timber industry.
"From our perspective," he said, "there may be some opportunity for policy calls and interpretation of the act by this administration, but they haven't really done that yet. They've just been responding to court decisions to try to implement the act."
The Endangered Species Act -- passed by Congress in 1973 and signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon -- is both one of the toughest and one of the most popular laws ever enacted. Its provisions can essentially dictate the management of federal land and severely curtail activity even on private land if an endangered species is found there. On the other hand, both parties have chronically underfunded execution of the law, and landowners often have rebelled at the burdens placed on them.
"On the whole, the administration's record on endangered species is not very good," Leigh Raymond, an assistant professor of political science at Purdue University, told UPI. "What is good (is that) they are really stressing this collaborative approach to habitat-conservation planning, which started under the Clinton administration. That's continued to be a useful thing. To protect endangered species by cooperating with private landowners is very important."
"The history of the ESA has been very strong mandates that have not been implemented," he added. "A more collaborative approach is essential to making the law work. ... That said, their actions have been unsympathetic."
The Endangered Species Act authorization actually ran out in 1992, and has been a political football ever since, limping along year to year, but without a major overhaul or reauthorization of its existing form.
"It's a popular law," Raymond said. "I think public support for endangered species protection draws on some pretty strong, fundamental principles -- the idea that extinction is morally wrong."
At the same time, he said, "the Interior Department has been effective in making the law almost symbolic. The rhetoric and degree of protection is so strong, but the reality is that the law is implemented in a very partial and incomplete manner."
When you really try to protect endangered species, Raymond said, "you run into another powerful American moral law -- the sanctity of private property rights. We have two very strong moral principles that point in opposite directions."
Sometimes the environmental side can force neglect of the private property issue, creating a problem with the sharing of burdens, he added.
"Some people think we oppose the Endangered Species Act," Michael Klein, a spokesman for the American Forest & Paper Association, told UPI. "That's not true. What we want to do is make sure that when a species is listed, it is done so judiciously, not on a whim or a rumor, which we have seen in the past."
Klein said the act is "a very powerful law with huge impacts on private land ownership. When it's hauled out, we want to make sure it is used appropriately. We don't think there is any reason why land can't be co-managed for wildlife reasons and for commercial reasons. You see it on private lands all the time."
In this series, Dan Whipple, who covers the environment for UPI Science News, examines the Bush administration's record on environmental issues. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org