Endangered Species reforms needed

Of all the meddlesome legislation that has contributed to the federal government's morbid obesity, few laws have packed on more pounds than the Endangered Species Act. It is everything a centralized bureaucracy could wish for, allowing regulators to rein in the economy, restrain property rights, impede the development of infrastructure and put the fate of entire communities in the hands of a select, favored few -- all under the bulletproof banner of saving the planet.

For Democrats in particular, it is to die for.

And when applied to the global warming canard, the Endangered Species Act has the potential to put all economic activity under the control of the state.

It plays out like this: Environmentalists sue to block the development of a new power plant/highway/dam/mine/shopping mall, claiming the emissions from its construction and operation might worsen global warming, which might one day threaten the currently growing population of polar bears. An activist judge agrees, and voila, the average citizen's cost of living jumps another few cents each day.

Such efforts are, of course, a means to an end. It is the anti-capitalism, anti-progress agenda of environmental extremists that drives Endangered Species Act litigation.

The Bush administration justly wants to end this troubling, thoroughly disingenuous trend.

Under current practice, federal agencies must forward all work plans to the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service for an assessment of the threat a project might pose to endangered species or their habitats. While these agencies take their sweet time going through tens of thousands of requests each year, their allies in the environmental movement spring to action, combing project sites for any weeds, bugs or rodents that could one day become threatened or endangered. Their findings are documented and thrown onto the pile of requests for good measure. The tactics add millions of dollars in costs to the projects fortunate enough to make it out of the regulatory labyrinth.

Under draft regulations Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne discussed Monday, the emissions that greens blame for global warming would be exempt from agency evaluations -- the hypothetical arguments that a project could melt a glacier three decades hence would be off the table for good. Additionally, agencies would conduct impact assessments themselves, recognize fewer potential effects as harmful and set a 60-day deadline for wildlife experts to evaluate a project.

"We need to focus our efforts where they will do the most good," Mr. Kempthorne said. "It is important to use our time and resources to protect the most vulnerable species. It is not possible to draw a link between greenhouse gas emissions and distant observations of impacts on species."

Predictably, the proposal has sent the left into stock shrieks of horror.

"If this proposed regulation had been in place," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, "it would have undermined our ability to protect the bald eagle, the grizzly bear and the gray whale."

In fact, the opposite is true. The regulations aim to steer the Endangered Species Act toward the legislative intent that ushered its passage 35 years ago, guarding the iconic species that Americans identify as national symbols.

Sen. Boxer and her campaign contributors, on the other hand, are determined to retain their power to protect shrubs, unremarkable minnows and common creepy-crawlies if it takes every last dime of your money to do it. Restricting the reach of the Endangered Species Act limits the power of the federal behemoth. And there are tens of thousands of university professors and government workers whose taxpayer-funded livelihoods depend on it.

The proposal is a perfectly reasonable response to decades of abuse by environmental organizations. But this issue ultimately will be settled in the courts -- just like everything else that deals with the Endangered Species Act.