In This Issue
Four prominent Republican legislators from the House and Senate are working together to draft and introduce legislation this year that would revamp the 30-year-old Endangered Species Act.
Senate Wildlife Subcommittee Chairman Lincoln Chafee (R-RI), Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID), House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-CA), and Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) are planning for what they hope will be a bipartisan, bicameral effort to change the law.
House Resources Committee spokesman Brian Kennedy said the legislators are not yet ready to introduce a bill, but they have been meeting together — along with stakeholders and administration officials — to try to gather consensus, so they can introduce identical legislation in both chambers later this year.
The move marks a turn away from the direction ESA revision took last year, when the House Resources Committee passed its own controversial legislation, which experts on and off the Hill agreed would have been unlikely to make any progress in the Senate.
Environmental lobbyists have said that adding into the mix Crapo, who met with environmentalists and other stakeholders last year to try to draft consensus legislation, and Chafee, a moderate Republican, indicates this year’s legislation will likely be less controversial than other proposals Pombo has put forward.
Pombo, Walden and Crapo have characterized ESA as ineffective at saving species, too mired in litigation and often placing an undue burden on citizens who have been kept from certain uses of their land.
Walden was the sponsor last year of H.R. 1662, a “sound science” bill that would have required federal wildlife agencies to give greater weight to field-tested data before listing a species under ESA.
Crapo floated draft legislation last year that focused on changing the Act’s current deadline system for a species priority system, narrowing the scope of critical habitat, codifying the “No Surprises” rule and mandating a “recovery team” to make plans for each species.
Pombo would like to see the bill pass out of committee and through the House floor by the end of the year, according to Kennedy.
Two environmental groups, the Union of Concerned Scientists and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, report that hundreds of Fish and Wildlife Service scientists have been told to alter or withhold findings, according to a survey of 1,400 agency employees.
While the survey, which was answered by 30 percent of the employees, was not a valid poll, the groups have said that the large number of responses suggest the administration is exerting inappropriate political influence over the agency’s scientific work on endangered species.
Interior Department officials who oversee the Fish and Wildlife Service contend that the survey results reflect the natural tension between agency scientists and managers in making tough decisions about protecting species.
Responding in an interview, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton said that while science ought to be the basis for decision making, department officials may intervene to bring other considerations to light.
“We’ve seen in the past biologists essentially go into their offices and dream up what they think species ought to have and then prescribe that, instead of working with people to see how to accommodate the needs of species, along with the needs of humans and other resource kinds of concerns,” Norton said.
House Resources ranking member Nick Rahall (D-WV) and Government Reform Committee ranking member Henry Waxman (D-CA) have sent a letter to Norton, expressing their concern with the survey results and seeking a response in the next month.
“Political appointees at the Fish and Wildlife Service are suppressing some of the brightest minds in the country,”Rahall said in a statement. “I do not see how Congress can effectively and responsibly address any changes to the Endangered Species Act when the statute is not receiving adequate funding and politics is muzzling science in species protection decisions.”
Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), Ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee, and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), Ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, introduced legislation designed to promote scientific integrity in Federal research and policymaking.
“Scientific progress occurs when we foster the open exchange of ideas and information,” said Rep. Gordon. “We must maintain a culture of openness and freedom of inquiry if we are to maintain the preeminent status of this nation in the world scientific community, develop new technologies, and to safeguard our environment and public health.”
The legislation, entitled the “Restore Scientific Integrity to Federal Research and Policymaking Act,” prohibits requirements based on political affiliation for scientific advisory committees, blocks tampering or censorship of scientific analysis, and extends whistleblower protections to federal employees who expose scientific manipulations.
Dangers of toxic mercury pollution in the environment have been overstated, according to a House Resources Committee report issued in anticipation of new regulatory proposals from the Bush administration.
The report, written by aides to the committee’s majority Republicans, also said no link between mercury from coal-burning power plants and levels of mercury in fish has been scientifically established.
“After an exhaustive review of all the science surrounding the mercury debate, it is clear that some special-interest groups are crying wolf,” said panel Chairman Richard Pombo (R-CA).
The report comes in advance of changes to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations governing mercury from coal-burning power plants, expected by March 15 as part of the agency’s court agreement with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Critics of the report said the committee’s conclusions are contradicted by health advisories from the Food and Drug Administration, EPA and state agencies across the country.
The Bush administration will present Congress a cohesive long-term plan to stem the risk of wildfires as detailed in a recent Government Accountability Office report with the fiscal year 2007 budget request, Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey told the House Forests Subcommittee.
The GAO called on Congress and federal land management agencies to work together to craft such a long-term plan. GAO said progress has been made over the past five years, specifically in the adoption of the National Fire Plan, President Bush’s Healthy Forests initiative and the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act, but that none of those provides the long-term vision needed to successfully respond to the wildfire threat on 190 million acres of federal lands at risk.
Rey said the Forest Service and Interior agencies are just beginning to implement improvements to fuel reduction efforts, specifically the LANDFIRE program, a data and modeling system designed to better identify fire threats and allocate resources. By February 2006, the agencies should be able to submit their proposal for a broader plan.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee sent a bill to the Senate floor that would designate 300,000 acres in five Northern California counties as wilderness, as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) lent his support to the effort.
The Senate panel also approved the Wild Sky Wilderness bill, \
S. 152, from Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), which would create the 106,000-acre Wild Sky Wilderness in Washington’s Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The Senate passed the bill in both the 107th and 108th congresses, but the House has yet to act.
As with the Northern California wilderness bill, House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-CA) holds the cards to the fate of Wild Sky. Last year, the Chairman withdrew a Wild Sky wilderness bill from a markup agenda.
Representatives from more than 60 countries met in Brussels, Belgium, to approve an effort to create the Global Earth Observation System, a network of satellites, ocean buoys and terrestrial measurement stations designed to track climate change and better prepare for natural disasters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has estimated that the system could reduce damage from coastal storms, cut utility costs by improving forecast accuracy, and reduce air travel delays. Worldwide, the system aims to help scientists track pollution and disease outbreaks, predict earthquakes, and monitor changes in climate and marine populations.
Leaders from seven African countries signed a treaty Feb. 6 to protect the Congo Basin rainforest, which provides food and shelter to the world’s last lowland gorilla populations and nearly 20 million people.
The Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Sao Tome and the Republic of Congo have agreed to join together to track poachers, raise funds for conservation and coordinate logging regulations in the 200-million-hectare Congo Basin.
French President Jacques Chirac spoke at the treaty meeting in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, over the weekend. “We are gathered here to ensure the preservation of a priceless heritage, the greatest wealth of the Congo Basin, the forest,” he said. “The protection of these forests cannot wait”.
2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai warned that the treaty would fail unless good governance replaced corruption in poverty-stricken Congo Basin countries. “We have many friends,” she said. “They want to help us. But we must create an enabling environment for development partners to do their part.”
Sources: Environment & Energy Daily; Greenwire; www.house.gov/science_democrats; San Francisco Chronicle; Science