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House attempts (once again) to thwart the ESA

Wood_Bison                                                                                      Wood Bison, photo courtesy of USFWS

The House Committee on Natural Resources met earlier this week to markup several bills that would obstruct the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  HR 4315, HR 4316, HR 4317 and HR 4318 were proposed by Chairman Doc Hastings, Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis, Congressman Neugebauer, and Congressman Huizenga, respectively, and  make what they claim are “smart and sensible” updates to ESA, making the scientific and the legal aspects more transparent to the public. Unfortunately, the actual verbiage of these bills relays a much more nefarious effect.

The four bills fit into two sections, the first dictates operational rules on the scientific reports used for ESA assessments, and the second applies restrictions to citizen enforcement of ESA. These proposed bills strip away not only the credibility of the research community, but they also greatly reduce citizens’ right to seek counsel and petition. Congressmen DeFazio openly critiqued the package of bills, “[it’s] so absurd on its face I don’t even know why we’re considering this!” where Congressman Lummis argued that ESA has been invalidated for years.

So what about this reform is so absurd, if they’re meant to be “common sense” bills?

HR 4315 and HR 4317 would require U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service to post online what is defined by Congress as “the best available science.” While Sierra Club is a longtime advocate of using the best available science, the crippling effects of this mandate are twofold. This process would overburden the resources of all four agencies; and thereby waste taxpayer money and overextend agency resources. Where Section 6 of ESA includes the participation of the states, this bill elevates all state provided research as the “best available;” giving way for duplicative and inferior research to inundate the agencies. 

New Jersey Congressman Holt’s response to this bill was poignant, “Surely we don’t think that the members of Congress are better at evaluating the best available science than actual scientists…”  (Said humbly by the committee’s only physicist.)  The combination of these bills would undermine the quality of scientific research that agencies use to implement ESA, as well exhaust the agencies with excessive regulations.

The second set of bills, HR 4316 and HR 4318, would dismantle the ability of citizens to seek counsel by limiting the award given to successful litigants; this would stall the effective ESA litigation by requiring each and every cost associated with law suits be cataloged and published.  Here, Congressman Huffman pointed out that ESA suits make up barely 1.9% of all litigation and that these bills are based on the fabricated myth that these types of suits pad the wallets of environmental agencies and organizations.

Now what exactly is common sense about adding cumbersome regulations for multiple institutions? Which wastes more taxpayers’ dollars: the litigation fees or heavy expenditure of agency resources? Although these bills passed the House Committee, they, like so many Endangered Species Act reforms bills before them, will only be ignored and abandoned by the Senate. Thus, the ESA will be allowed to thrive as the one of the nation’s most effective environmental protection laws. 

--Lauren van Vliet, Federal Policy Public Lands intern

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