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Major overhaul of ESA proposed

Cookson Beecher, Capital Press 3/29/07

The Interior Department's recent announcement that it is considering making changes to the 34-year-old Endangered Species Act comes as welcome news, said American Farm Bureau regulatory official Rick Krause.

Pointing out that 80 percent of the land where listed species' live is private property - most of which is farmland or forest land - Krause said farmers have a huge stake in this.

"We're glad the Interior Department is trying to make things work better," he said. "Just the fact that they're trying is a positive sign."

Krause said he knows that the Administration has talked about working cooperatively with landowners and using a "carrot instead of a stick" approach to species' protections.

"It would be very welcome to our members if they could back that up with regulations," he said.

The Bush Administration says it wants to see changes in the act because in its current form, it's onerous and expensive for landowners.

Critics warn that the department is trying to restrict the law through rule-making rather than getting Congressional approval.

Many of the proposed changes were part of legislation that has been defeated in Congress in the past 12 years.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has said the documents are drafts, not decisions that have been made.

The department's new approach would change the way the law is interpreted. One of the changes would limit extra protection for endangered species to where those species are found.

Opponents say that would limit protection for the species because the law currently includes habitat that historically supported a species - even if that species no longer lives there.

In the Northwest, dwindling salmon runs present another concern. Environmentalist said the proposals could lead to allowing more water to pour through the Columbia River dams, thus putting salmon at risk.

Another proposed change would narrow when species can be considered in danger of extinction, changing "in the foreseeable future" to a more specific timetable of 20 years for some species and a certain number of generations for others.

Opponents also fear that the changes could lead to more logging, development and other project - as long as they stop short of "hastening" a species' extinction.

The proposal would also give states more authority over protecting species.

For the American Farm Bureau, having landowners play a role in consultations and also in recovery plans is important.

"They're the ones whose livelihoods are on the line," said Krause. "And they're the ones who could provide information about what's feasible and what isn't."

He also pointed out that the Farm Bureau believes that incentives would lead to more cooperation on the part of landowners.

"There are people who would like to help listed species, but they're afraid that if they attract the species to their land, they'll be subject to greater regulations," he said. "That approach doesn't encourage cooperation; it discourages it."

In reading the draft proposal, Krause sees elements of landowner participation in consultations and recovery plans and incentives for landowner cooperation.

"There are possibilities in there that we find encouraging," he said.

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