WASHINGTON — Just months before President Bush leaves office, his administration is antagonizing environmentalists by proposing changes that would allow federal agencies to decide for themselves whether subdivisions, dams, highways and other projects have the potential to harm endangered animals and plants.
The proposal, first reported by The Associated Press, would cut out the advice of government scientists who have been weighing in on such decisions for 35 years. Agencies also could not consider a project's contribution to global warming in their analysis.
Reaction was swift from Democrats and environmental groups.
The chairman of the House committee that oversees the Interior Department, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said he was "deeply troubled." Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., head of the Senate's environment committee, said Bush's plan was illegal. Environmentalists complained the proposals would gut protections for endangered animals and plants.
"This proposed rule ... gives federal agencies an unacceptable degree of discretion to decide whether or not to comply with the Endangered Species Act," Rahall said.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne defended the revisions, saying they were needed to ensure that the Endangered Species Act would not be used as a "back door" to regulate the gases blamed for global warming.
If approved, the changes would represent the biggest overhaul of endangered species regulations since 1986 and accomplish through rules what conservative Republicans have been unable to achieve in Congress: ending some environmental reviews that developers and other federal agencies blame for delays and cost increases on many projects.
In May, the polar bear became the first species declared as threatened because of climate change. Warming temperatures are expected to melt the sea ice the bear depends on for survival.
"We need to focus our efforts where they will do the most good," Kempthorne said in a news conference arranged hastily after the AP reported details of the proposal. "It is important to use our time and resources to protect the most vulnerable species. It is not possible to draw a link between greenhouse gas emissions and distant observations of impacts on species."
The rule changes unveiled Monday would apply to any project a federal agency would fund, build or authorize that the agency itself determines is unlikely to harm endangered wildlife and their habitat. Government wildlife experts currently participate in tens of thousands of such reviews each year.
The revisions also would limit which effects can be considered harmful and set a 60-day deadline for wildlife experts to evaluate a project when they are asked to become involved. If no decision is made within 60 days, the project can move ahead.
"If adopted, these changes would seriously weaken the safety net of habitat protections that we have relied upon to protect and recover endangered fish, wildlife and plants for the past 35 years," said John Kostyack, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation's Wildlife Conservation and Global Warming initiative.
Under current law, federal agencies must consult with experts at the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine whether a project is likely to jeopardize any endangered species or to damage habitat, even if no harm seems likely. This initial review usually results in accommodations that better protect the 1,353 animals and plants in the U.S. listed as threatened or endangered and determines whether a more formal analysis is warranted.
The new rules were expected to be formally proposed in the next couple of days, officials said. They would be subject to a 30-day public comment period before being finalized by the Interior and Commerce departments. That would give the administration enough time to impose the rules before November's presidential election. A new administration could freeze any pending regulations or reverse them, a process that could take months. Congress could also overturn the rules through legislation, but that could take even longer.
Between 1998 and 2002, the Fish and Wildlife Service conducted 300,000 consultations. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which evaluates projects affecting marine species, conducts about 1,300 reviews each year.
Some federal agencies and private developers say that process has killed or delayed some worthwhile projects.
"Over the years, the Endangered Species Act has become a regulatory nightmare that kills or stalls even the most well-crafted land-use projects," said Rob Rivett, president of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a group that supports property rights and limited government. "The economy suffers, people suffer, rational environmental planning suffers. Some careful streamlining is long overdue."
On the Net:
Fish and Wildlife Service: http://www.fws.gov/endangered
National Marine Fisheries Service: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/laws/esa/
National Wildlife Federation: http://www.nwf.org/news