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Environment under siege

Allen Braunholtz

American alligator, bald eagle, chinook salmon, Florida manatee, grizzly bear, peregrine falcon, pima pineapple cactus, desert tortoise are some of the more photogenic of the hundreds of species brought back from the brink of extinction by the Endangered Species Act.The act is suffering under the most sustained assaults in its brief 30-year history. It’s one of the favorite bad guys of government action in the eyes of politicians who can’t strike a balance between business and nature. To them, protected species are more of a nuisance in the way of business expansion than an irreplaceable biological resource. The act is a moral law that says we will try not to let any more of the animals and plants that grace our land go extinct and they don’t have to earn the right to exist.Past critics, including Newt Gingrich, of the act tried to gut it in one fell swoop and found out that most Americans want to preserve their heritage. Now it’s the death of a thousand cuts as the law is undermined piece by piece without telling the public. The act is chronically under funded mainly because this administration refuses to budget the money, despite invitations from Congress to do so. Then they turn around and say we can’t follow the law, since we don’t have the money. Deadlines to act on listing species are removed, leaving this at the discretion of Gale Norton, secretary of Department of Interior. By itself this isn’t so bad. Now the department can prioritize which species needs help. Before it tended to be lawsuit-driven and first in line. It also allows the Department of Interior to do nothing when faced with industry pressure. Gale Norton, the one responsible for enforcing the act, once said that she thinks it’s unconstitutional. This could explain why this administration has placed the fewest animals on the list since the act passed. Decisions and input on habitat are taken away from the Fish and Wildlife Service, ending up in the hands of political appointees. The White House Office of Management and Budget told the Wildlife Service to delete their research showing the benefits of preserving habitat for the topeka shiner, a small minnow in Kansas. You’d think the White House would have more important things to do than interfering in local reports, like deleting all reference to global warming/climate destabilization by the EPA. The most public brouhaha came over the Florida manatee. Gov. Jeb Bush didn’t like a prior agreement that created 14 slow zones in Manatee habitat and the government simply refused to do it. A Florida judge threatened Gale Norton with contempt for acting above the law. Despite only being around for 30 years (a short time where the environment is concerned) and suffering under Reagan and Bush, the Endangered Species Act works. It gives real teeth to habitat protection, which is why development interests dislike it so. When habitat is protected, the whole web of life that lives nearby benefits, including us. Clean air, water and open space are nice to have. With species going extinct at a rate unseen since the last meteor-super volcano wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, it’s a strange time to undermine the act. This loss of biodiversity is the sin least likely to be forgiven by our children’s children. Renowned biologist E.O. Wilson warns that we might lose half of all species by the year 2100. A world without tigers, whales, bears, salmon, marlin, to name a few exotic biggies, would be an impoverished place.This year’s the anniversary for another benchmark law. Where the road ends another world begins and the Wilderness Act of 1964 preserves parts of this world. I’m amazed at the vision of those who pushed for this law when the hubris of mankind in the post-war economic boom felt the whole earth was his for the taking and improving. Our wilderness areas are the envy of the world. Few countries have anything like it. The Senate and House unanimously approved the act, which gives statutory protection and Congress sole authority to designate. It’s difficult to enact these laws. Legislative inertia is a good safeguard against rash change but once protected, wilderness lands benefit from the same inertia. The Wilderness Act is truly a law in which public input matters. Citizen campaigns to preserve local treasures are often the most effective. Every day people have through their efforts saved wild places. The Gore Range is a local example, which I enjoy being near every day.Lyndon Johnson signed the act into law with the words, “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt … we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”My how things have changed. Our present administration stopped reviewing land for protection in April 2003 and decided only BLM land designated wilderness or wilderness study areas before 1993 would be eligible. Instead of managing wilderness study areas in ways that wouldn’t harm their wilderness character, they’ve allowed extensive off-road vehicle use and encouraged road building by local counties. Both are activities that damage the land and can remove these areas from wilderness consideration.Bush and Norton often choose to overlook inconvenient public input where the environment is concerned. The roadless rule, designed to preserve old growth forest, and the Yellowstone snowmobile phase-out received overwhelming support in terms of public comment, but this matters little when the public is on the wrong side of industry.Still, there’s a chance for public feedback that could save a lot of our special places, which they can’t ignore. It’s the election on Nov. 2. Consider the environment and get their attention when voting.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.Vail, Colorado


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