Endangered Species Act safe after 25 years


The Chicago Tribune said in an editorial May 22.

EVER since Congress passed it 25 years ago, the Endangered Species Act has been taking potshots from all directions. It has placed property owners and developers against naturalists and environmentalists, their disagreements often caricatured in TV news snippets as a battle between a family man about to lose his livelihood and a heretofore unknown critter about to lose its place on this planet.

Fortunately for men and critters, this tugging and pulling has led to an uneasy equilibrium that affords the protection of endangered plants and animals a secure place in the law books.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt couldn't have picked a more dramatic way to celebrate the silver anniversary, and success, of the act than by announcing May 6 that the government plans to take 17 plant species and 12 animal species off the endangered list. Some will be removed altogether, while others will be upgraded to "threatened," after a final scientific review and additional public comment.

Among the animals expected to be delisted are American bald eagles, which, thanks to their recovery from near-extinction 20 years ago to 5,000 nesting pairs today, have become magnificent symbols of the act's effectiveness. Other animals that will be delisted are peregrine falcons and gray wolves and the far less renowned Hoover's wooly-star, a California plant.

GOP foes

Celebrations aside, the Endangered Species Act is up for renewal this year, and the guerrilla warfare over its fate has already started. Most of the attempts to gut or weaken it come from the Republican ranks. Many in the GOP still refuse to hTC recognize that federal protection efforts have by and large worked quite well and enjoy resounding popular support.

A Senate bill sponsored by Sens. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho, John H. Chafee, R-R.I., Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., and backed by the Clinton administration, tries to allay the hostility of private landowners by setting up a mechanism for negotiated Habitat Conservation Plans. Some 80 percent of the endangered species are found on private land. Yet a troublesome "No Surprise Rule" could effectively freeze these HCPs for as long as 100 years. In trying to protect the owner from constant federal meddling, the bill goes too far.

Republican proposals to fund enforcement of the act by selling surplus federal land sets up a precarious year-to-year funding formula. The $91.1 million earmarked for endangered species should have a more secure income source.

Months of debate ahead

The House bill sponsored by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., incorporates some incentives for private landowners to participate in conservation programs but, most admirably, makes the recovery of endangered species, rather than passive non-encroachment, the goal of federal preservation efforts. Haggling over details of these two bills is expected to take months. Yet it's encouraging that after 25 years the debate over the Endangered Species Act is not so much about if -- but about how.

Pub Date: 5/29/98

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