GOP Has Plan to Get Endangered Species Act Out of 'Litigation Driven' Mode

WASHINGTON – A House Republican working group is recommending sweeping changes in the 40-year-old Endangered Species Act, asserting that local interests are not being properly considered in the law’s implementation and that lawsuits carry excessive weight in its determinations.

While preserving species “is a laudable and worthy goal,” according to the report, “federal implementation of it, and seemingly never-ending litigation are creating increasing impediments towards reaching that goal.”

Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), who led the 13-member panel with Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the law needs to be brought into the 21st century as a result of “tremendous conservation advances since 1973.”

“The American people have grown by leaps and bounds in their understanding of conservation, their willingness to conserve species,” Lummis said. “The ESA needs to grow with them. The ESA is stuck in a litigation driven model. This outdated model hinders the boots on the ground conservation we should be harnessing to actually recover endangered species, not just spout flowery rhetoric about the law in courtrooms.”

But environmental groups maintain the group’s conclusions are unacceptable. Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, said the panel’s proposals will “cause more species to go extinct.”

“Conservation of our nation’s precious natural heritage and imperiled wildlife used to be a value embraced by Americans from coast to coast and across the political spectrum,” Clark said. “But more and more, members of Congress like Rep. Hastings seem to have abandoned those values and forgotten their responsibility as stewards of our natural resources.”

Clark said the package “is not credible conservation ‘reform’ -- it’s an anti-environmental corporate wish list.”

Chris Tollefson, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, responded that the agency will not comment on the House GOP report until wildlife officials have an opportunity to review its findings.

Conservatives have long sought changes in the Endangered Species Act, which they claim often serves as a drag on economic development. They point to instances involving species like the Northern Spotted Owl, listed as threatened under ESA in 1990, which led to a partial shutdown of timber harvesting activity in the Pacific Northwest to protect the bird’s habitat.

“Shortly following the listing, the federal government, through the Clinton Administration’s Northwest Forest Plan, administratively withdrew nearly 24 million acres of federal land – resulting in no access to nearly 85 percent of the area available for timber harvest – from active management and restricted harvest levels,” the report said. “As a result, over 400 lumber mills have closed across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and California, terminating over 35,000 direct jobs and countless more indirect jobs.”

But Hastings said the biggest problem with the Endangered Species Act is that it “is not recovering species.” The report said only 2 percent of protected species have been recovered at a cost of billions of dollars.

Environmentalist organizations, like the National Wildlife Federation, reject that claim, noting that species like the bald eagle, Florida panther, gray wolf, grizzly bear, peregrine falcon and red-cockaded woodpecker have all benefitted from the ESA.

Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973 to provide for the “conservation, protection, restoration and propagation of threatened and endangered species of fish, wildlife, and plants, and for other purposes.”

The law authorizes federal agencies to list species as either threatened or endangered and requires them to use their authority to conserve listed species and protect their federally designated habitat.