- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Key Senate Democrats expressed concern yesterday about an Interior Department proposal they say will weaken the Endangered Species Act and demanded the Bush administration include Congress in any attempt to rewrite the 30-year-old law.

“We have seen reports of a document reflecting extensive draft revisions” and “additional documents that have surfaced recently suggest that major rule revisions remain under active consideration,” the senators told Interior Secretary Dirk Kemp-thorne in a letter yesterday.

“We are concerned about any attempt to overhaul the Endangered Species Act program administratively, without the involvement of Congress,” the lawmakers wrote.

The letter includes 15 questions the lawmakers are demanding be answered before the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service moves forward with any changes. The letter is signed by Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, and independent Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernard Sanders of Vermont.

The 90-page proposal limits the number of species protected and the acreage of habitat preserved for those species, and includes a timeline for protection. It also shifts more power and funding from the federal government to the states, and gives local officials veto power over what plants and animals will be protected.

Interior Department spokesman Hugh Vickery said the secretary will respond to the senators’ questions, but he dismissed the lawmakers’ concerns, saying the draft document in question “is old thinking.”

“Obviously, the secretary cannot respond today, but we are trying to figure out what they are talking about,” Mr. Vickery said. “That was an old document, some draft document that was floating around as a work product.

“[Environmentalists] grabbed something that was a moving target and declared the end of the world was coming,” he said. “When we put out proposed regulations we will hold a press conference and tell everyone what we are doing.”

Department officials have been re-evaluating the process “for a while” to determine whether the law can be administered more effectively and consistently, Mr. Vickery said. Critics complain that the law is enforced more harshly west of the Mississippi River than in the East.

The senators are demanding to know who wrote or participated in the drafting of the proposed regulations.

“Which industry and/or commercial groups or entities have given opinions, input or information regarding these draft rule revisions?” the senators asked.

The Democrats also want to know whether it is a good idea for governors to approve experimental introduction of threatened or endangered species in their states.

“We believe that the changes put into place by the rule revisions would reduce dramatically the current scope and positive impact of the Endangered Species Act,” the senators said. “Indeed, if the draft revisions had been in place 30 years ago, it is hard to imagine that we ever could have achieved the success — with bald eagles, grizzly bears, sea turtles, sea otters, and many other species — of which we now are deservedly proud.”

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