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Law protecting species studied

Western governors gather to discuss fixes to the Endangered Species Act, including giving states greater input
Sunday, December 05, 2004

LA JOLLA, Calif. -- Western governors convening a two-day summit on the federal Endangered Species Act heard a list of complaints: Too few plants and animals saved. Too many lawsuits filed. The economic costs of the act are too high.

"The ESA is very, very important. But there are changes that should be made," said South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds, a Republican and one of six state leaders participating in discussions sponsored by the Western Governors' Association on Friday and Saturday in La Jolla.

Attended by nearly 300 people representing industry, agriculture and conservation groups, the governors' Endangered Species Act summit comes at a time when the Bush administration is changing how the 31-year-old landmark environmental law is interpreted and enforced.

Last week, the administration proposed a drastic reduction in the amount of protected habitat in the Columbia Basin to aid salmon. It has also discussed the necessity of a better balance between the needs of endangered species and humans.

Key chairmen of U.S. House and Senate committees have also said they'll bring Endangered Species Act reform legislation to the next Congressional session.

"I believe it's time we modernize the act and update it and try to bring it into this century," said Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the House Resources Committee.

The western governors made it clear that they expect to have a voice in future decisions. Of the more than 1,200 species listed by the federal government as threatened or endangered, nearly 70 percent are located in 18 Western states. Since the Endangered Species Act was adopted in 1973, 17 species have been declared "recovered" and removed from the list.

Assistant Interior Secretary Craig Manson said Saturday that the Bush administration is "seeking insight and information from Western governors" before deciding whether the president would also come forward with legislative changes.

Conservationists are wary. Some say the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress are trying to weaken the act's protections. But some conservationists also say improvements could make the act work better.

"There are places where you can strengthen the process, enhance the states' roles and allow endangered species conservation to be recognized as more than just a challenge for a couple of agencies but a national priority," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, vice president of Defenders of Wildlife, who also served as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1997 to 2001.

The five Republicans and one Democratic governor that attended the summit all agreed that the act needs to be fixed but not scrapped altogether. They disagreed though about just how extensive the changes should be.

"We have to be careful," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the lone Democrat in the group.

Neither Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski nor Washington Gov. Gary Locke, both Democrats, attended the summit. A spokeswoman for Kulongoski said the governor or a member of his staff would be a part of future panels or discussions.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger only attended a Friday dinner. During brief remarks the Republican said: "We reject the notion that we have to choose between protecting the environment or protecting jobs."

The Western Governors' Association will consider reforming the act again at its March meeting in Washington, D.C. The governors could move forward at that time with recommendations for Congress, said Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican and Western Governors' chairman.

Proposals to receive further consideration by the governors include: Better recovery planning. The governors and other summit speakers said fish and wildlife agencies need to create deadlines for issuing recovery plans, and those plans must be clear about what constitutes a recovery -- setting specific population targets, for instance. Greater role for states. Require federal agencies to collaborate with states and private landowners before moving forward with significant endangered species initiatives or enforcement. Sound science. Listing and recovery decisions should be backed by peer-reviewed science.

Two of the more controversial recommendations included reducing the number of lawsuits filed against the federal government and increasing the amount of money given to federal and state agencies working to recover species.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is facing 71 current or pending Endangered Species Act lawsuits, a spokesman said last week. The agency has previously said it does not have enough money to meet obligations dictated by court orders or settlement agreements.

After the close of the summit, Rapport Clark said she was feeling "quite positive" about the discussion.

"Clearly they acknowledged the importance of the law," she said. "But the devil is in the details."

The devil is also in the politics. Previous attempts by Congress to enact reform have failed.

But in an interview last week, Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, chairman of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over the act, said the opportunity for reform looks better today than it has for decades.

"The mood about the Endangered Species Act has been changing over the last five years," Crapo said.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., also said last week that he's planning to re-introduce a reform bill that would require that decisions be rooted in peer-reviewed science. Backing from the Western governors would be a tremendously important boost, Walden said.

"It would be huge," he said. "You've got Republicans and Democrats. Conservatives, moderates and liberals. If they could come together in a package, that would give us momentum."

Michelle Cole: 503-294-5143; michellecole@news.oregonian.com





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