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Republicans begin effort to rewrite species act

Rep. Greg Walden cites the Klamath experience as bad science, but others say the changes aren't necessary



WASHINGTON -- House Republicans began laying groundwork Wednesday for a rewrite of the Endangered Species Act, questioning whether the work of federal scientists should face more outside scrutiny before it results in costly regulations.

Citing the experience of Klamath Basin farmers two years ago, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said "unsubstantiated science" led to a $200 million economic catastrophe when federal agencies suspended irrigation flows to protect imperiled fish.

"I challenge anyone to find a group that has been more negatively affected by the inadequacy of the science used in making decisions under the Endangered Species Act," he told members of a House Resources subcommittee, referring to Klamath farmers.

Walden was promoting his own bill, the "Sound Science for Endangered Species Act Planning," to require federal agencies, when deciding to list a species for protection, to give greater weight to scientific and commercial data that has been "peer reviewed."

In addition, the bill prohibits listings unless they are backed by data observed in the field. Also, a panel of three independent experts would have to review and report on the science behind any proposed agency listing before it could become final.

The hearing marked the start of a renewed effort by House Republicans to rewrite parts of the endangered species law, which turned 30 years old in December. The issue is a top priority for the resources chairman, Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif.

"Handcuff" for managers Environmental groups did not testify at the hearing but said later that Walden's bill was unnecessary and would create more obstacles and delays under the act.

"What (the bill) does is handcuff natural resources managers from using the full spectrum of science that is before them," said Bart Semcer, fish and wildlife policy manager for the Sierra Club.

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., has introduced a companion bill to Walden's in the Senate. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is pushing new rules to enforce consistent peer review practices across all agencies, an effort many scientists have attacked.

Complaints about "junk science" underlying government decision-making have long been a staple for congressional and industry critics of the Endangered Species Act and other health and safety regulations.

Their strategy has been to call for "sound science," independent peer reviews like those required before studies are published in major scientific journals, along with greater use of risk assessments and cost-benefit analysis that opponents say favor industry views.

Past chemical bans cited In promoting Wednesday's hearing -- under the heading "A History of Crying Wolf" -- Republicans cited bans on PCBs and the pesticide DDT and controversy about use of Alar on apples in addition to the Klamath decision, made during a drought in 2001.

The Bureau of Reclamation suspended irrigation deliveries to farmers, saying the water was needed for endangered sucker fish and threatened coho salmon. But later reviews by the National Research Council found the scientific evidence questionable.

"If you went to a doctor, and he said to you, 'We are going to have to take off your right leg,' you'd probably want a second opinion," Walden said. "Right now under the Endangered Species Act, you just get cut off at the knees."

Betsy Loyless, chief lobbyist for the League of Conservation Voters, said the act already requires agencies to use the "best available" science. Instead, Walden's bill would slant the science by requiring field data in cases where it is inappropriate, she said.

The measure "creates an atmosphere in which scientists are not really able to operate within the intent of the Endangered Species Act, which is to give the benefit of the doubt to the species," Loyless said.

Besides Walden's bill, Pombo is considering a measure by Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., that would force wildlife agencies to give greater weight to economic consequences of listings and would remove some deadlines, allowing agencies to delay.

Tom Detzel: 503-294-8100; tom.detzel@newhouse.com

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