In This Issue
ESA Rapid Response Team (RRT) members Robert Twilley, of Louisiana State University, and Dennis Whigham, of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, briefed congressional staff on the ecology of Gulf Coast wetlands and the role of ecological science in restoring Gulf Coast ecosystems. The scientists highlighted the processes of wetland degradation and the importance of delta restoration, and offered recommendations on integrating ecological principles into scientific decision making in Gulf Coast recovery.
ESA President Nancy Grimm opened the session with remarks highlighting the role of ESA’s RRTs in contributing ecological expertise to environmental challenges, ranging from hurricane recovery to invasive species. Over the past year, the RRT corps of 45 experts has provided information to policy makers on a variety of issues, from endangered species, to fisheries management, to science education.
House and Senate conferees approved a $100.2 billion agriculture appropriations bill for Fiscal Year (FY) 2006, an increase of 1.5 percent increase over the FY 2005 enacted level, but $258 million below the level passed by the Senate. The conference report will be sent back to both chambers for final approval.
Sen. Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Tom Harkin (D-IA) said the spending measure slashes farm bill conservation programs, lowering funding to less than the Senate-approved level. “The agriculture appropriations measure took a decided turn for the worse in conference with the House,” he said.
Meanwhile, the House and Senate Agriculture Committee members continued their search for cuts in spending authorizations, which guide yearly appropriations bills. A budget reconciliation process earlier in the year tasked conferees with finding $3 billion in savings over the next five years. The Senate panel passed its bill, which cuts $1 billion from conservation programs. Much of that would come from cuts to the Conservation Security Program (CSP), the Agriculture Department’s new “green payments” program that pays farmers to make environmental improvements on working lands. Negotiations are ongoing with the House bill. The House bill’s conservation cuts will not be as deep as the Senate’s, but will likely contain similar figures for the CSP.
The Chairmen of the House Agriculture and Resources Committees have introduced legislation that would limit public comment and appeals of Forest Service projects already categorically excluded from environmental studies under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The bill is designed to address an ongoing controversy caused by rulings from a federal judge that led the Forest Service to stop work on nearly 1,500 projects ranging from wildfire prevention and salvage logging to the Capitol Christmas tree.
H.R. 4091, from Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-CA) and Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), “is intended to clarify that projects conducted under categorical exemptions are not subject to administrative appeals, contrary to the recent district court decision,” said a Goodlatte spokeswoman.
At issue are a series of rulings by Judge James Singleton of the U.S. District Court in Anchorage that brought many Forest Service operations to a halt. The Forest Service suspended the projects after Singleton ruled the agency violated the 1992 Appeals Reform Act by not sending out “categorically excluded” projects for public comment, notice, and appeal. The Service’s response sparked a firestorm of protest, with several members of Congress accusing the agency of attempting to create a crisis.
Last week, Singleton clarified his ruling by saying it was not intended to apply to small projects such as Christmas tree cuts, hunting, or outfitter permits that the service suspended.
Singleton’s ruling against the agency was in response to a lawsuit filed by the Earth Island Institute, Heartwood, Center for Biological Diversity, and the Sierra Club, challenging a 2003 rule that expanded the use of categorical exclusions for timber cutting and salvage logging projects without providing for public comment and appeal.
A budget package that clears the way for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and expanded industry access to offshore areas advanced in the House, even as doubts surfaced about the prospects of offshore drilling provisions in the Senate.
The House Resources Committee voted 24 -16 to approve a five-year budget reconciliation plan that includes ANWR drilling, a plan to let states “opt-out” of Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) leasing bans, language on oil shale development, land sales, and a provision to allow companies to buy mining rights on public lands. The bill’s language is similar to that of a part of an energy package passed by the committee in September that never made it to the House floor.
Across the Hill, the Senate Budget Committee approved a $39 billion reconciliation measure that also includes ANWR leasing. Leasing language was included in the budget bill in order to improve its chance of passing the Senate, as budget bills cannot be filibustered on the Senate floor.
However, the fate of House offshore drilling provisions in the Senate is unclear. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) declined to include OCS provisions in the Senate reconciliation package. Instead, he has said he is planning separate legislation and does not envision Senate action until next year. “The sense is right now that the Senate is not interested in pursuing OCS legislation,” said Domenici’s committee spokesperson Marnie Funk.
The Army Corps of Engineers and Louisiana officials vowed they would not seek waivers of federal environmental regulations as they rebuild flood-protection systems and wetlands along the Gulf Coast.
The Corps will comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in its efforts to design and build an improved levee system in New Orleans, Lt. Gen. Carl Strock told a House panel. NEPA procedures requiring feasibility studies that would take at least two years ensure critical environmental considerations and protect the agency against lawsuits that could further slow the process, he said.
Sidney Coffee, from the Louisiana Governor’s office on coastal activities, urged Congress to streamline the Corps’ efforts so hurricane-protection systems can be in place in less than the 16 to 20 years that the process is now expected to take.
“It is critical to streamline,” Coffee said. “We’re not asking for NEPA or Clean Water Act waivers, but asking the Corps to work faster. We simply don’t have 20 years to wait.”
In a bid to expedite projects, the Corps is working with Congress and the White House Office of Management and Budget to amend drafts of the 2005 Water Resources Development Act to expand the agency’s management and spending authority for coastal restoration in southern Louisiana.
The European Union (E.U.) launched an initiative to protect and conserve the marine environment, pledging to spend at least €70 million per year to aid surrounding seas and oceans from oil spills, overfishing, and climate change.
The new E.U. directive will centralize efforts to restore waters by forming coalitions of members sharing seas. Countries will then develop strategies for marine revival including cooperative environmental targets. “For the first time the E.U. is putting in place a policy framework which specifically addressed the vital issue of protecting Europe’s seas and oceans,” said Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas.
Dimas said setting a deadline for restoring sea life by 2021 is necessary to preserve E.U. wealth, trade and tourism. “Europe’s seas and oceans make a huge contribution to our quality of life and our economic prosperity, but they are deteriorating because of over-exploitation, pollution, climate change, and a range of other factors,” Dimas said.
The commission said that between 13 and 25 percent of the world’s coastal wetlands could be lost by 2080 due to rising sea waters — necessitating further restrictions on oil and gas exploration in such areas.
However, critics said the directive lacked a binding commitment. “Today’s proposal was expected to fill a gap in E.U. environmental policy,” said a coalition of environmental groups. “The commission’s text falls short. It is now up to the European Parliament and Council to set legally binding objectives within this directive, including a clear definition of what constitutes a healthy sea.”
Sources: Environment and Energy Daily; Greenwire; www.appropriations.house.gov