The Bush administration is almost history. The environmentalists among us were on the verge of conjuring mental images of the administration heading off into the environmental netherworld. As close as they are to losing power and authority, the president's anti-environment minions at the Interior Department felt compelled to pull yet one more harmful stunt.
This time, on the way out the door to richly merited oblivion, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed major changes to the Endangered Species Act, so as to (what else?) endanger more species.
The Associated Press obtained a draft proposal of the rule that forced the administration to make public its Neanderthal thinking on a project that it was trying to push through completely beneath the radar. The rule change seeks to bypass normal scientific environmental impact reviews for construction projects, such as highways, dams, and mines.
The Endangered Species Act has until now required federal agencies to consult with scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service on whether a project is likely to affect (harm) any of the 1,353 animal and plant species listed as endangered or threatened.
The draft rules, which do not need to be approved by Congress but are subject to a 30-day public-comment period, would let each agency decide whether a project would harm listed species. This is the functional equivalent of letting the preschoolers take charge of Miss Nancy in "Romper Room," instead of the other way round.
In case smoke is not yet emanating from your ears, the proposed changes would also prevent federal agencies from assessing the greenhouse gas emissions from construction projects. I guess the thinking went something like: "Let's pollute the air for humans, too, while we kill off all the animals."
According to the Christian Science Monitor, "If approved, the changes would represent the biggest overhaul of the Endangered Species Act since 1988. They would accomplish through regulations 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."
It would take far too long to list all the damage this administration has done or attempted to do to the environment in its eight-year tenure. But the Wilderness Society's Web site recounts a sampling. Most famously, the administration has tried and failed repeatedly to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Undeterred by failure and public outrage, the administration this year sold off oil and gas rights to Alaska's Chukchi Sea, one of the most pristine ocean environments on the globe (because it is so remote) and spanning half the polar bear's natural habitat. That 30-million-acre sale is on hold pending a lawsuit by environmental groups.
Then there is the massive attack on irreplaceable old-growth forests. The administration has proposed to sell or has already sold logging rights in Oregon, elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest and in the Sierra Nevada. The president's 2007 budget included a plan to sell off a 500,000 acres of Western federal lands for a billion dollars. The proposal angered even conservative Republican senators.
In 2005, the administration repealed the popular Roadless Area Conservation Rule and replaced it with a voluntary state petition process, reversing federal protection for 58.5 million acres of roadless national forest lands. This policy was so outrageous, more than a million Americans filed public comments opposing it.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council: "The administration also tried to jettison the entire rule outright a gambit that was struck down in court, though legal action continues. More recently, Bush appointees have worked on rescinding the rule one state at a time. It has launched rollback processes in Idaho and Colorado, two states with more than 13 million roadless areas between them. ... In each state, they are pursuing phony replacement rules shot full of loopholes that would jeopardize millions and millions of wildland acres."
The council asks for vigorous public support in 38 states across the country to preserve the original strong rule and beat back state-specific rollbacks.
One last note. Wordsmiths in the Bush environmental hierarchy have coined phrases such as, "The Clear Skies Act" to gut the old Clean Air Act and allow greater pollution than previous administrations have deemed to be in the best interest of Americans' health.
Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail [email protected]