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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Just Trust Us
distributed 9/5/08 - ©2008

Many churches have a strict policy about the Sunday morning offering: at least two people need to be present when the money is counted. No matter how much we might trust the church officers, we know (as do the companies that provide the church liability insurance) that it can be very tempting to pocket a loose $20 bill if nobody is watching. Even though the 2-person requirement ties up volunteers every week, it is a prudent rule that ensure an honest process.

In a fast-tracked change to federal rules, though, the US Department of the Interior is proposing that a similar verification process be removed from the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The new rules would place absolute trust in the government agencies that are planning to build roads and dams, if they just promise that the construction projects will have "no impact" on threatened species.

The current rules for the Endangered Species Act require that "action agencies" (the ones that would impact a habitat) consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service about their plans. The biologists of the "services" have to concur about the likelihood of a negative impact on species listed as endangered. The biologists play the same role as a second person with the church offering -- to make sure that nobody cheats when there's a strong temptation and self-interest.

It is in the self-interest of "action agencies" to promise that critical habitat will not be disturbed and endangered species will not be harmed. If there will be no impact -- or if they can make that claim -- they can bid out the construction work on the projects they have initiated. Under the current ESA rules, that claim of no impact needs to be checked by an employee of a different federal agency, one who's professional concern is with ecological health instead of construction contracts.

Under the proposed rules, the agencies that want to build a highway can say, "just trust us, it will be fine!" If nobody ever checks out that claim, there will be a powerful temptation -- and probably some strong encouragement from other interested parties -- to downplay or hide risks to the endangered species.

The preamble to the proposed rules admits that the consultation process is "contentious" when the biologists do their jobs. A 2004 study by the General Accounting Office "found that action agencies continued to consider the consultation process burdensome." To solve that problem of inconvenience for the action agencies, the Interior Department is now proposing that "action agencies are not required to consult on those actions for which they determine their action will have 'no effect' on listed species or critical habitat."

In other words, when an "action agency" wants to build a road across a protected habitat, the new rules would completely trust their judgement when they promise that they won't cause any damage. Under the new rules, no impartial biologist will ever look at the plans to see if that assessment makes sense.

Maybe those findings of "no impact" are true most of the time. Most of the people who count the church offering are scrupulously honest most of the time, too. But our insurance policies and congregational rules still say that we need to provide a security factor. We should insist on the same safeguards with ESA decisions.

Those outside consultations, and the policies that don't presume complete trustworthiness, are essential because, sometimes, the welfare of endangered species really is sacrificed to other concerns. Back in 2003, I wrote about just such a case:

In one such example, the Bush administration wanted to allow construction of condominiums on the protected habitat of a listed endangered species. A federal agency issued a "finding of no substantial impact" from the destruction of that critical habitat. When that finding was challenged, a federal court called the government's analysis "so implausible that it could not be ascribed to a difference in view."

Many of the comments that I have seen about these proposed rules use the phrase, "the fox guarding the henhouse." That's not a prudent or acceptable policy.

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These proposed changes to the ESA rules were published in the Federal Register on August 15. The public was given only 30 days, until September 15, to learn about the proposal, study the changes, and submit comments. The Denver Post on Tuesday called that schedule "ridiculously short".

Even with that tight deadline, it is important that we -- concerned citizens who care about ecological health -- make the effort to submit comments. In the process about federal rules, public comment plays a role similar to the extra person when the church offering is counted, or that of the biologists who watch over endangered species. We're there to look carefully at what is happening, and be sure that the public interest is protected.

Six weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of the Endangered Species Act, not knowing that it would soon be challenged. Just as I urged your support for a strong ESA in July, I urge you to learn more about the proposed changes to ESA rules that would significantly weaken the Act, and submit a comment before September 15.

Read more about the proposed rule changes from our friends at the Center for Native Ecosystems, or in a report from ABC News.

Read the section of the Federal Register that defines the proposal. Then submit your own comment on the proposed rules through the US government's Regulations website.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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