WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Bush administration plan to let U.S. agencies decide for themselves whether their actions put wildlife at risk is drawing fire from environmental groups, which say this is like letting a fox guard a henhouse.
The Interior Department, one of two federal agencies pushing for this policy change, rejects the environmentalists’ critique, saying the new rule would cut bureaucratic red tape and free government scientists for more important work.
But a coalition of conservation groups sees the move as an attempt to gut the Endangered Species Act.
“This is exactly the fox guarding the henhouse,” Michael Daulton of the National Audubon Society said. “It’s a scary proposition to think about agencies with no wildlife expertise at all making decisions about the fate of species, potentially leading to extinction.”
The 35-year-old Endangered Species Act is meant to protect threatened wildlife by relying on the best available science, the environmentalists noted. Government scientists must now consult with agencies on projects that could put species at risk.
The rules change could take scientists out of the equation, the conservation coalition maintained.
Audubon, which aims to protect birds, was among more than 120 groups that joined to flood the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service with 100,000 negative comments about the plan on Friday.
This flood of paper was timed to coincide with the end of an official “public comment” period on the proposed rule change, which ends on Tuesday. After that, it is unclear when or whether the rule will be adopted.
‘HAIL MARY PASS’
“This proposed rule change is obviously a Hail Mary pass to industry friends in the final days of the Bush administration and it will fail,” said Janette Brimmer, a lawyer with Earthjustice.
A Hail Mary pass is a desperate last-minute play in American football.
At the heart of the matter is the notion of dropping a requirement for U.S. agencies -- from the Transportation Department to the Army Corps of Engineers -- to consult with scientists before they take on projects that could threaten wildlife on the Endangered Species list.
As the Interior and Commerce departments wrote in their plan, released in mid-August with little fanfare: “We propose to add language that action agencies are not required to consult on those actions for which they determine their action will have ‘no effect’ on listed species or critical habitat.”
These two agencies set a 30-day public comment period, which was extended for an additional 30 days. Conservation groups urged a 120-day period for comment from the public and Congress, and said comments should be allowed by fax and e-mail in addition to paper letters, the only form now accepted.
“The abbreviated timeline and restrictive commenting options raise serious concerns that the Department of the Interior is attempting to rewrite a bedrock environmental statute without allowing for anything approaching adequate public involvement,” the environmental groups said in a letter to the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service.
Chris Paolino, an Interior Department spokesman, said scientific consultation occurs in the planning phase of federal projects, and that these scientists do not simply “rubber stamp” government efforts.
The aim of the proposed rule change, Paolino said by telephone, “is to streamline the process a little bit, remove red tape where we can and remove the backlog of consultations that had developed over the last 30 years and allow for those projects where there’s an accepted ‘no negative impact’ to an endangered species to move forward.”
The Bush administration has been widely criticized for its record on endangered species. Since President George W. Bush took office in 2001, 58 species have been added to the list, compared with 522 during the eight years of the Clinton administration and 231 in the four-year presidency of George H.W. Bush, the current president’s father.
Editing by Eric Walsh
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