Saving species: A guide for the perplexed


WASHINGTON, D.C. - Policy is complicated.

The goals of policy - a strong economy, peace (or war, depending on circumstances), clean air - are simple. But in a diverse, sometimes disagreeable society with conflicting institutions, a sprawling government and an intricate legal system, achieving those goals requires gobs of ... well, process, and process can get confusing.

To this confusion, semi-official Washington has its own responses. It has developed its own jargon; no, more accurately, its own jargons - different ones for defense, social welfare, economic and environmental policy. Then it has developed an easy, if misleading, shorthand for judging policies - if the guys we don't like are for it, it has to be bad.

Both responses are on parade when it comes to the present dispute over changing the Endangered Species Act. Jargon reigns supreme, at least so it seems to those of us for whom "mitigation," "recovery teams" and "guaranteed revenue source," are not part of day-to-day chatter. And on both sides, much of the rhetoric consists of this condemnation by association.

Thus the Sierra Club asserts that the bill before the Senate can't be any good because it is backed by "a well-financed lobby of development interests." On the other side, one of those industry-financed "property rights' groups proclaims, "This bill is so bad even Bruce Babbitt likes it."

On both sides, these facts are right, or at least right enough. Interior Secretary Babbitt has endorsed the Senate bill (whether or not he actually likes it), and so have the loggers, miners, farmers and developers so un-loved by the Sierra Club, though these groups aren't crazy about it, either.

Herewith, then, an attempt - in plain English and without name-calling - to explain the situation, which appears to be a classic case of simple goals meeting complex process.

Almost everyone is for preserving species, and those who are not don't admit to it. Similarly, almost everyone accepts the proposition that owners of private land should be allowed to develop it and earn money from it, though this point arouses the most controversy.

True, many of these landowners already have so much money that one wonders how they manage to spend it. But some landowners are not rich, and anyway, rich people have rights, too.

The landowners and their well-paid lobbyists prefer the Senate bill, a bipartisan measure sponsored by Republicans Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho and John Chafee of Rhode Island and Democrats Max Baucus of Montana and Harry Reid of Nevada.

But so does the Clinton administration, which helps explain why it was approved by the Committee on Environment and Public Works by a 15-3 vote, with five out of the eight Democrats voting for it. It will not get to the floor until early next year.

The environmentalists prefer a bill sponsored in the House by George Miller of California, which will get nowhere, ever. Miller is a Democrat, and a Republican House is not about to pass major legislation sponsored by the other guys.

So let's return to the Senate version, which is likely to pass with few, if any, amendments. Despite what some environmentalists say, this isn't like the proposals to eviscerate the ESA made in the last Congress.

"This bill," said one environmental lobbyist, "is not Pombo-esque," referring to Richard Pombo, the California congressman who regards environmental regulation as an offense to Western Civilization.

The Senate bill would strengthen the Habitat Conservation Plan policy of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, under which landowners are allowed to log, farm or develop their property, even at some risk to endangered species habitat, if they "mitigate" the loss by creating habitat elsewhere (HCN, 8/4/97).

Specifically, the bill would codify into law Babbitt's "no surprises" policy, which guarantees landowners that the government won't unilaterally alter their HCPs, even if the species continues to decline, even if another endangered species is later discovered to be on their property.

Should that happen, says the Senate bill, the government would have to bear the burden of additional mitigation or whatever other steps were needed to preserve the endangered plant or animal.

Some environmentalists say, fine; if the people of the United States want to save a species, the people of the United States, not individual landowners, should bear the burden. Through their government, said people can create more habitat, or can compensate landowners for limiting productive use of their property.

Where will the money come from? Under the Senate bill, it would have to be appropriated by Congress each year as the need arises.

To which one need not be an environmental lobbyist to reply: "Yeah, right." In the balanced-budget era, no one can be confident that even a more liberal Congress than this one would pony up enough dough to pay for saving habitat.

So that's one objection to the bill. Environmentalists want some kind of guaranteed funding mechanism - they have not specified one - before they support the measure. They also want a provision guaranteeing that the HCPs will be scientifically monitored to see if they are working.

The other big problem is that the Senate bill - Miller's bill, too, for that matter - imposes ever more complex procedures for creating the HCPs, and even for listing new species. Thus we have a situation in which the very complexity of policy affects policy. Not that either HCPs or the listing procedure is now a model of simplicity. But the new procedures could be so involved and intricate that they would be difficult to implement.

Again, money comes into play. The agencies that enforce and administer the law - the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service - are, to understate the case, not overstaffed. The proposed procedures could take so much of their time and energy that they'd hardly have time to do anything else. If they performed their other tasks, they wouldn't have time to work on the HCPs or the listings.

Despite these objections, Senate passage seems assured, so let's turn back to the House, and to the Miller bill, which is doomed, but not irrelevant. It keeps picking up additional co-sponsors (at least two Republicans at last count), and even if it can't pass, it can serve as the counterweight toward which the Senate bill would have to move before the House passes any measure.

There will be a counterweight to this counterweight, of course. House Resource Committee Chairman Don Young says he will insist on stronger "property rights' provisions in the bill. But the political reality is that the House, on environmental issues at least, is more liberal than the Senate.

There are 30-some moderate Republican congressmen from the Northeast and Midwest who do not want to weaken the Endangered Species Act, especially in the months before the election. Suburban swing voters look askance at candidates who can successfully be painted as "anti-environment."

A likely prospect is that the House will make some of the changes demanded by the moderate environmentalists - easing the procedures, adding mandatory monitoring, maybe even finding a funding source. Perhaps the House will even add some of Miller's proposals, which call for trying to restore species and habitat, not just minimizing their decline.

Then it will be up to a House-Senate conference to resolve the differences. The outcome could be - don't bet the mortgage on this, now, but it's possible - a new ESA that pleases most people on both sides of the issue.

Policy really isn't that complicated. It just comes down to those two most simple factors: politics and money.

Jon Margolis translates Washington, D.C., bureaucratese into journalese for High Country News.

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