WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama overrode the Bush administration on a key step in administering the Endangered Species Act yesterday, restoring a requirement that federal agencies consult with experts on threatened species before launching construction projects that could affect their well-being.
Environmentalists said reinstating the requirement blocks the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service and others from "nibbling away" at critical wildlife habitat. Business and industry groups, on the other hand, warned that it could hamper road-building and other projects that would help jump-start the economy.
Bush's rule change, finalized in December, allowed federal agencies to determine on their own if projects would jeopardize endangered species, instead of consulting with expert biologists, as had been required for the past three decades. It gave agencies the option, if they so chose, of calling on the experts from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Obama took away the option and made such consultation mandatory. He announced the change during a celebration of the 160th anniversary of the Interior Department, telling cheering employees it would "restore the scientific process to its rightful place at the heart of the Endangered Species Act." Technically, the president did not overturn the Bush rule, which would require a lengthy process. Instead, he issued a memorandum instructing agencies to exercise the consultation option in every instance, until the Interior and Commerce departments can reconsider the Bush rule change.
"This is very good news for endangered species," said Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The regulations that President Bush issued were clearly illegal, and they were bad policy to boot."
Michael Bean, director of wildlife programs for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the forced consultation with expert biologists has tempered the ambitions of the Army Corps, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Reclamation and other agencies that "have historically had pretty strong mission drives, which have maybe overwhelmed concerns about species." Consultations have resulted in a variety of measures to preserve species that could be imperiled by government projects.
An Interior decision earlier in Bush's presidency allowed the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to skip the consultations when setting certain fire management policies. A 2008 review found that both agencies frequently failed to consider key aspects of the policies' effects on species.
Industry lobbyists said Obama's decision to mandate the consultations would add "red tape" to infrastructure projects funded by the economic stimulus bill.
"This directive throws the brakes on projects," said Bill Kovacs, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's vice president of environment, technology and regulatory affairs.
Even clean energy plans could be slowed down, said Michael Olsen, a former Bush Interior official who lobbies for energy interest at Bracewell & Giuliani.
Environmentalists scoffed at those warnings. "This kind of scientific consultation was how the Endangered Species Act worked for 30 years," said Athan Manuel, director of lands protection for the Sierra Club. "So I think that's sour grapes."