Bush Dealt Setback on Environmental Policy

From Associated Press

A House panel on Thursday rejected a prominent part of President Bush's environmental agenda: restricting the ability of environmental groups to get new endangered species listed and protected by the government.

Language that the administration sought to put the plan into practice was removed from an $18.9-billion land and energy spending bill for the budget year that begins Oct. 1. The legislation was approved by the House Appropriations Committee's interior subcommittee on a voice vote.

At issue is the ability to bring the kind of lawsuits that have largely set the Interior Department's agenda in deciding which species deserve protection.

The administration's plan would have removed some legal burdens for the Interior Department in responding to citizen law, leaving Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton free to decide which species should have priority.

"We will continue to address the issue and work to prioritize resources on species that have the greatest biological needs and not the most powerful set of attorneys," said Mark Pfeifle, Norton's spokesman.

"That's what's happening right now: It's the courtrooms and attorneys deciding what species need the most help, and not the career biologists."

Mary Beth Beetham, director of legislative affairs for the Defenders of Wildlife, said the provision "would have gutted citizen enforcement of the Endangered Species Act."

Environmental groups were unable to secure the first $24-million installment toward the $120 million the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates it needs over five years to deal with the animals and plants proposed for protections.

There are more than 500 animals and 730 plants on the department's endangered list, while nearly 250 candidate species are under review. At the same time, the Fish and Wildlife Service is contending with nearly 80 lawsuits focused on more than 400 species and has been served with notices of about 100 more lawsuits affecting about 600 species.

Without that money, environmental groups say, some species awaiting protection could become extinct.

The spending bill would cap at almost $8.5 million--what Bush proposed--the agency's budget for responding to those suits.

Developers, industry and government agencies have complained for years that environmental groups use the endangered species law to tie up projects such as dams and airport expansions in lengthy reviews.

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