President Obama on Tuesday signed a presidential memorandum ordering federal agencies to revert to the original guidelines of the Endangered Species Act while they study the rule former President George W. Bush issued just before leaving the White House.
“The work of scientists and experts in my administration will be respected,” Mr. Obama said from a ceremony at the Interior Department, which was celebrating its 160th anniversary.
Mr. Obama said his memorandum would “help restore the scientific process to its rightful place in the Endangered Species Act (ESA).”
Without mentioning Mr. Bush’s name, the president said that process had been “undermined by past administrations.”
“We should be looking for ways to improve it, not weaken it,” he said.
Mr. Bush issued a decision in December removing a long-standing ESA obligation that federal agencies consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service before taking action.
White House aides said the Obama memorandum restores the consultation obligation while the Interior and Commerce departments study the Bush rule. It does not change the rule itself but returns to the previous practice while the agencies decide whether a new rule should be issued.
Aides noted that the groups are policy experts and their consultation is an effective way to make sure the act is followed.
Environmental groups hailed the decision.
Andrew Wetzler, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Endangered Species Program, said the change allows the act to do what was intended, protecting endangered plants and animals.
“Reversing the Bush administration’s midnight action will restore protections for our last wild places and species,” he said. “Undoing the last administration’s damage to the Endangered Species Act will enable scientists to work with federal agencies and ensure that new projects do not harm threatened wildlife.”
The Ocean Conservancy said the memorandum “reinforced the role of science” and said a strong act will make sure the world does not lose whales, seals and other ocean wildlife forever.
“President Obama is bringing science back into decision-making,” said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club.
“The Bush rules would have allowed agencies with little or no wildlife expertise to make decisions that could mean life or death for animals like the polar bear,” he said.
Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, also lauded the announcement.
“It is one more indication that the new administration truly represents change for the better and is committed to the protection of our natural resources and our environment,” Mr. Rahall said. “I think we know who would have been the winner in this fox-guarding-the-hen-house scenario advanced by the Bush administration, and it would not be the hens.”
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that his department always has been able to “transform the crisis of today to the opportunity of tomorrow” and that it would help the president’s economic recovery plan work.
He called Mr. Obama’s leadership a “new era of change,” and the president said the stimulus funds directed to the department will help the nation’s parks, tribes and waterways.
With a subtle reference to the corruption scandals that harmed the department several years ago, Mr. Obama said, “We’ve seen lapses that have damaged the reputation of this department,” but added that in his first few weeks as president there have been more responsibility and accountability.
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