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Species Act reform may be possible

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - As the federal Endangered Species Act turns 30 today, groups warring over the landmark conservation law say they're edging toward a consensus that its future lies in cooperation instead of confrontation.

Supporters and opponents alike say the act is being loved to death by environmental groups that have used it not only to save species from extinction, but to block - or at least slow - rampaging development.

The Bush administration's chief overseer declared the act "broken," snapped under the weight of myriad lawsuits that now drive most aspects of the law.

 

Environmental groups counter that Bush has sabotaged the law by not seeking sufficient money through a Congress that, in turn, is so split it hasn't reauthorized the act since 1988. It's funded instead on a year-to-year basis as critics and supporters spar over its future.

For all the rancor, both sides are charting a more cooperative future, with incentives for landowners who participate in protection programs instead of a regulatory hammer.

"I think 30 years hence, it's going to be the standard way of operating," said Crain Manson, assistant interior secretary for wildlife.

He cites the example of a central California ranch family whose young children stumbled across a protected frog, a remnant of once-widespread population made famous by Mark Twain's tale of "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."

The family told The Associated Press they hesitated to come forward for fear of heavy-handed federal intervention, but have been happily surprised with the cooperation between state, federal and local officials and environmental organizations.

"You've got to have a cooperative approach to make this work," Manson said. "You give people a reason to want to cooperate with the government and the tools to do it."

That's the same message being preached by William Robert Irvin of the World Wildlife Fund and Michael Bean of the Environmental Defense.

"I think it is the future," said Irvin. "You can get a lot farther with carrots than sticks. I certainly think there is a shared interest in promoting incentives."

Strong protections must remain to spur the sort of cooperation Manson touts in the case of Twain's frog, cautioned Robert J. Stack, who is coordinating that effort through his Jumping Frog Research Institute in Angels Camp.

Even conservation groups promoting a cooperative vision accuse the Bush administration and Republican Congress of using it to mask assaults on the act. Those include easing protections on military bases and national forests, and seeking to repeal a provision requiring the Fish and Wildlife Service to designate critical habitat for endangered species.

It's the critical-habitat portion of the law that is drowning in lawsuits from both environmental groups pushing designations and development groups opposing them. The endless litigation has kept the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "from focusing on other, more important things, so in that aspect (the act) is broken," Manson said.

As recently as May, Manson joined Fish and Wildlife officials in blaming the court battles for eating up all their funding and forcing them to miss countless legally mandated deadlines. Environmental groups and even federal judges have blamed Congress and the Bush administration for underfunding the agency.

But Manson and House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., discounted that financial argument in interviews with the AP.

"It's definitely more than a question of funding when it comes to critical habitat," Manson said. He said the service is reluctant to make legally required designations not because it lacks money, but because "it doesn't add a great deal of environmental benefit."

Pombo has targeted the act for revision next year after a series of nationwide hearings.

"It has not been successful in terms of recovering endangered species, and it's caused a lot of conflict with property owners," said Pombo, who questions the quality of the science behind many protection decisions.

Yet Pombo, who has fought a running battle with environmental groups, said he thinks Congress could finally reauthorize the act based on a consensus that promotes more use of tools like Habitat Conservation Plans.

Such plans can shift the emphasis to managing large swaths of property to benefit an entire ecosystem, minimizing critics' complaints that the act micromanages landowners to benefit a single endangered species sometimes to the detriment of other wildlife, Pombo said.

Environmental Defense and the World Wildlife Fund tout similar measures like Safe Harbor Agreements and Candidate Conservation Agreements, which also promise property owners some regulatory freedom so long as they take steps to protect endangered species.

"Regulatory incentives really do result in landowners doing good things for their land," without worrying they'll be punished for their good works, said the World Wildlife Fund's Irvin.

Irvin proposes a national commission be formed to focus on the act's benefits and shortcomings at age 30.

"Everybody sees the need to have an Endangered Species Act. We've been arguing for years what that (act) should look like," Pombo said. "As long as we stick to the areas where there is general consensus, I think we can move forward."



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