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People who care about wild places and their animal inhabitants won a small victory when a House committee preserved the public's ability to bring lawsuits that place plants and animals on the endangered list. But our ability to protect the country's natural heritage is still undermined by the budget cuts that remain in the bill.
Language the Bush administration wanted in the Fish and Wildlife Service budget would have given Interior Secretary Gale Norton almost complete discretion over which species merit protection. Moreover, wildlife officials would have been barred from spending money to carry out any subsequent court orders or settlements.
Lawsuits from environmentalists account for the vast majority of the 1,200 species currently on the endangered list, which means that the department placed them there only after being compelled to do so. The department claims it needs relief from more lawsuits to determine which animals most need relief. But maintaining the public's right to hold wildlife officials accountable will not affect their ability to allocate resources as long as they obey the court's orders.
This isn't just about protecting the gulf sturgeon or the San Fernando Valley spineflower. It is also about their habitats, some of the public's most cherished natural resources. The Endangered Species Act has been a successful tool to protect land from strip mining, clear cutting, residential sprawl and other destructive processes. Norton is an avowed advocate of "property rights" to the near exclusion of national interests, calling into question the department's willingness to enforce regulations against land modifications that might harm habitats.
To address the species currently proposed for protection, Fish and Wildlife officials estimate they will need $24-million annually. The spending bill offers only $8.5-million. As the bill moves through the House, representatives should take care to preserve government's ability to protect public lands and endangered species -- whether the threat to that function comes from skimpy funding or limits on public input.
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