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Norton has harsh words for enviros, critical habitat lawsuits


Escalating the rhetoric over congressional efforts to rewrite the Endangered Species Act, Interior Secretary Gale Norton accused environmentalists yesterday of focusing on litigation and fundraising at the expense of conservation and species recovery.

"It certainly is far easier -- and more lucrative -- for some organizations to put out a press release or file a lawsuit than it is to restore a wetland or eradicate invasive weeds," Norton told a gathering of hunters and conservationists in Washington.

"I am concerned about the polarization and politicizing of conservation. Instead of cooperation and consensus, we often see conflict," Norton said in an address to the American Wildlife Conservation Partners Conference. "This conflict frequently is spurred more by the desire to do fundraising than out of genuine concern for the resource."

Norton singled out lawsuits that force the Fish and Wildlife Service to designate critical habitat for endangered species. "We have spent millions of dollars and committed thousands of hours of labor," she said. "Yet these designations have not created or restored a single acre of habitat for wildlife. Not one single acre."

Some lawsuits are financially motivated, she said. "There are some organizations that make a lot of money suing the service over critical habitat," she said. Afterwards, Norton declined in an interview to single out specific groups.

Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that has been behind many critical habitat lawsuits, took issue with Norton's assertions. In a telephone interview, Greenwald said the designations do a lot to save species, and do not boost his organization's coffers.

CBD oversaw a recent study, which was peer reviewed and published in Bioscience, that found that species with critical habitat are twice as likely to be recovering as those without it. "The only reason she thinks critical habitat doesn't work it because she doesn't want it to work," Greenwald said.

Greenwald said Norton's arguments that critical habitat lawsuits are a windfall for environmental groups are "ridiculous." Any group that sues the government and wins can recover its fees, but Greenwald said that since other attorneys usually argue the cases for CBD, the organization does not usually collect the fees.

"None of us make a lot of money and neither do the lawyers who work for us," Greenwald said.

Critical habitat takes center stage on Hill

Critical habitat designations are likely to be a contentious issue in debate over ESA revision on Capitol Hill as the House Resources Committee considers legislation this summer.

A likely basis is a bill from Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.) that the committee backed last year. It would have required FWS to establish a recovery plan for species at the same time it designates critical habitat. The bill would also require the agency to "more accurately" assess the economic effects of critical habitat designations.

The Endangered Species Act mandates designation of critical habitat -- an area considered essential for species' survival and recovery -- for almost all listed species. A critical habitat designation requires federal agencies and developers seeking federal permits to consult FWS before undertaking activities that could harm the species or its habitat.

But FWS rarely designates critical habitat when it lists a species. About 36 percent of listed species have critical habitat, the service says. Environmental groups have taken the agency to task for this oversight, suing FWS to force it to develop habitat proposals.

The service maintains that in its 30 years of implementing ESA, it has found little to no additional protection from the designation of critical habitat. In its standard preamble for critical habitat proposals, FWS says critical habitat has evolved into "a process that provides little real conservation benefit, is driven by litigation and the courts rather than biology, limits our ability to fully evaluate the science involved, consumes enormous agency resources, and imposes huge social and economic costs."

The Bush administration is not the first to take issue with critical habitat designations. FWS also criticized the process under the Clinton administration, and former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt wrote an op-ed against it in The New York Times after his tenure as Interior chief.

Dan Dessecker, senior wildlife biologist with the Ruffed Grouse Society, agrees that Congress should address the issue. "Critical habitat designations have, in some instances, no foundation in science," he said.

But environmental groups argue critical habitat protections include nuances that make it one of the few proactive areas of ESA. While ESA consultations prevent "jeopardy" to the species, critical habitat consultations require permits not to interfere with the "conservation" of the species or "adverse modification" of the habitat.

So, they argue, critical habitat has an element of recovery, rather than just survival, and allows for protection where species are not currently located.

Liz Godfrey of the Endangered Species Coalition -- an advocacy group that argues for greater ESA protections but has not filed any critical habitat lawsuits -- said that while landowner incentives and cooperative measures are important, so is critical habitat and other ESA provisions.

Godfrey criticized the administration for not fully funding and implementing the listing and recovery provisions of the act, and said that lawsuits from other groups have been important to make sure species get habitat.

"Congress enacted the citizen suit provision so that we as Americans could make sure ESA is appropriately implemented and protecting species, to protect them from going extinct," she said.

ESA funding remains in spending bill

Late yesterday, the House Rules Committee rejected a request from House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) who sought a point of order that could have stripped $5 billion from the $26.2 billion fiscal year 2006 Interior and Environment appropriations bill, including funding for ESA programs.

Pombo asked the panel not to protect programs whose authorization has expired, such as ESA -- which was last reauthorized in 1992 -- and numerous provisions he said amounted to legislation on an appropriations bill. Other targets included rangeland management, historic preservation, the U.S. Geological Survey and Indian Health initiatives.

"The Appropriations Committee for all intents and purposes just takes over our jurisdiction," said Pombo at a markup yesterday.

Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) said he agreed ESA reauthorization is important but did not feel granting Pombo the point of order on funding was necessary.

"We are committed to dealing with reform of the Endangered Species Act and other environmental constraints," Dreier told reporters. "We're on the same page. It's just how you do it."

The House is scheduled to finish the appropriations measure tonight or early tomorrow.





Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:15 AM  Pacific

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