Monday, September 12, 2005

Next up: Endangered species

Sure, it's bad enough that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Republicans in Congress have set their sights on a permanent repeal of the estate tax. Just what we need: a permanent loss of revenue after a Category 5 storm and a bumbling Bush League response left taxpayers saddled with a disaster bill of $100 billion and counting. That should work wonders on that federal deficit.

But that's just the start of the march of the completion of the corporate-right agenda under Bush. Next in their sights: the Endangered Species Act, probably the most generally successful piece of environmental legislation ever enacted:
As Congress returns from its August recess, environmentalists and property-rights activists are focused on Rep. Richard Pombo, a California rancher who is chairman of the House Resources Committee. Later this month, Pombo is expected to introduce legislation to overhaul the 32-year-old Endangered Species Act, with House passage expected by year's end.

A draft of the bill that leaked earlier this summer "was comprehensive in trying to undo what's been done over the last 30 years" to protect endangered species, said Patti Goldman, Seattle-based lawyer for the Earthjustice law firm.

Before Pombo was tapped by Republican leaders to head the Resources Committee, he was one of the most virulent attackers of the landmark law. For example, Pombo in 1995 accused the "arrogant" U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of trying "to make California farmers vassals of the federal government" by enforcing the statute.

But now Pombo speaks of "updating" and "modernizing" the law.

"The act isn't working to recover species now," he said during a recent visit to Snohomish County. "At the same time, it's caused a lot of conflict with private property owners. We have to have an act that works and eliminates a lot of those conflicts we have."

Pombo and other detractors say the law is broken because only a handful of species have ever recovered to the point they no longer require protection. Conservationists, however, point out that it's done a very good job of keeping species from going extinct.

Pombo is right in at least one respect: The ESA has not been successful in getting species recovered to the point that they are off its list (though we've come close with both the bald eagle and the Montana grizzlies). The chief reasons for that, however, are associated with the kinds of compromises that have to be made to accommodate private property owners already. See, for instance, the (non-Yellowstone) wolves of western Montana, where predation on livestock brings swift and irrevocable retribution from the feds.

Indeed, the government has bent over backwards to accommodate private property owners, including farming and ranching interests, in enforcing the endangered species act. There's probably no more ludicrous example of this than the billions of dollars the government wastes every year barging salmon fry around the four dams on the lower Snake River that are wreaking so much damage on the native fish runs.

This plays into a subject near and dear to my heart, namely, the status of the Puget Sound orcas, who themselves have only recently won "threatened" status from the federal government, which tried for some time to proceed as though this resident population was indistinguishable from the generic killer whales found throughout the world:
A year ago, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik in Seattle ruled for the environmentalists, noting that the agency's science used was out of date and not the "best available." He ordered the fisheries service to plug the holes and reconsider its decision.

The judge's order led to the decision to propose the listing.

Bob Lohn, who heads the NMFS' Northwest office, said the resident orcas don't interbreed with other orca populations, have distinct markings and dorsal fins, eat different foods and inhabit different areas, and have a unique language of chirps and clicks.

There is a "significant biological difference," he said.

On the second try, federal scientists were "highly united" in their conclusion that the local killer whales were a subspecies that merit further protection, he said.

The resident killer whales are threatened by a diminished food supply, industrial pollutants and boat noise and traffic.

The "diminished food supply" means one thing: salmon. That's what the resident orcas eat, more than 90 percent of the time.

So protecting the orcas means, first and foremost, protecting the salmon.

And protecting the salmon means a lot of things -- building-code restrictions, limits on development and chemical and pesticide use, strict regulation of timber-cutting practices, among others -- that happen to fall well within the purview of business' bottom line.

It also means tearing down dams, from the Elwha to the Columbia.

And yes, those Columbia salmon do affect the Puget Sound orcas. The NMFS study found that the K and L pods, which reside offshore during the winter, subsist upon spring Chinook runs originating in the Columbia River system while they are en route back to the Puget Sound in late spring.

It's all closely interconnected. And pulling out the threads of protection woven in by the ESA could be disastrous.

The Endangered Species Act does need some reforming, especially in areas where common ground can conspire to create a desired end. But it does not need weakening.

And Pombo, as people in western Washington have learned in dealing with his heavy-handed tactics in keeping in limbo the Wild Sky proposal for creating a new wilderness near here, is simply not a straight shooter. He's a hardball-playing Republican who bends the rules at his pleasure, and aims only to crush his opponents -- namely environmentalists. He does not deal in good faith, so don't be naive about him.

Forget compromising on this. Pombo and the Republicans have to lose this fight -- or we're all in for it.

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