The Ecological Society of America today criticized the Bush administration's August 15 proposal to reinterpret the Endangered Species Act, which would impose regulatory changes eliminating the requirement for federal projects to undergo independent scientific review.
The proposal would allow federal agencies to decide for themselves whether their projects would harm endangered plants and animals.
"The concept of independent scientific review has been in practice since the 18th century and is crucial to ensuring that ideas and proposed work are scientifically sound," said Alison Power, president of the Society and professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University. "This overhaul of the Endangered Species Act would place the fate of rare species in the hands of government stakeholders who are not qualified to assess the environmental impacts of their activities."
The Endangered Species Act protects more than 2000 of the United States' rarest plants and animals. Ranging from green sea turtles to Santa Cruz cypress trees, these species are not only national treasures, but also biological resources and often integral parts of their ecosystems.
Under the current Act, which has been in effect since 1973, agencies are required to consult with scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service to assess potential ecological threats of their proposed projects. The administration now claims that agencies possess the expertise to judge the potential risks of their own projects and could opt to forgo the consultation.
The Bush proposal would present a conflict of interest, erasing the distinction between scientific review and politics. But proponents argue that the agencies would be held accountable and would suffer strict repercussions if their work negatively affected endangered species or their habitats. Power says, however, that this logic would provide little incentive for agencies to assess their work as rigorously as an unbiased reviewer.
"What if we allowed pharmaceutical companies to approve and distribute drugs without consulting the Food and Drug Administration?" she asks. "The result would spell potential disaster for humans. In this case, the vulnerable party is our environment."
Recently, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management conducted an internal assessment to determine the effects of wildfire prevention projects on endangered species. A follow-up evaluation by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service revealed that about half these evaluations were lawfully and scientifically invalid.
The Society believes that independent scientific review is a critical part of the Endangered Species Act and that eliminating this part of the process will result in environmental neglect at best and species extinctions at worst. The administration's proposal would compromise our ecosystems' capacity to provide essential services, such as mitigating pollution, regulating climate and providing natural resources. Exposing the most vulnerable species to the threats that will result from the Bush proposal will endanger our ecological support system.
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