Sen. Slade Gorton is now in a position to do more than just gripe about the Clinton administration’s owl and salmon policies.
The Washington Republican was chosen Tuesday to chair the Senate interior appropriations subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over both issues. The subcommittee oversees the U.S. Department of the Interior and its Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Endowment for the Arts.
“Now we’ve got a card to play on natural resource issues,” said Gorton, who won re-election last year on a platform that included weighing more heavily the economic effect on people before land uses are restricted to preserve habitat of threatened species.
Gorton said he and like-minded senators are drafting legislation to scale back the Endangered Species Act and related environmental laws. The northern spotted owl was listed as threatened under the act, leading to major restrictions on logging in national forests in the Northwest.
Logging curbs have caused economic hardship in timber towns throughout the region, which voted heavily for Gorton in November.
Gorton wants the laws changed so that economic and social effects on people are weighed before plans to protect the habitat of threatened species - including salmon that return to spawn on the Columbia River - are made final.
“In the scheme that I’ve talked about for more balance, you’re going to count the social and cultural and economic consequences on both sides of the equation,” Gorton said.
Environmentalist groups argue that, if the species protection laws are cut in the way Gorton wants, a number of species could become extinct. Sacrificing animals for the economic interests of constituents is often the most expedient course for politicians, they say.
Gorton said that if the law is revised in the way he wants, a president could no longer say, as President Clinton did to Northwest timber towns: “This is the best I can give you under the law.”
“Under my revisions, that would be an invalid argument. Under my revisions, whatever he determined to give them would be the decision of the administration after it weighed all these factors on both sides. … It is, in a very real sense, a political decision that has to reflect what impact it will have on the (president’s) re-election and the like,” Gorton said.
“I want there to be someone the public can blame or credit for the wisdom of the decision.”
He added: “Species come into existence and go out of existence literally by the hundreds of thousands without our even knowing about them. In all probability, we can’t preserve nature exactly the way it is today. … We have to make a value judgment of what do we think is the value of this beetle and this salmon.”
But the effort to change the law might hit snags in the Senate, where such environmentalists as Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., could prove to be an obstacle, Gorton said.If the Endangered Species Act is
not amended, Gorton’s subcommittee would likely move to allow more logging and modify the impact of environmental laws on a year-byyear basis, using money bills as a vehicle, Gorton said.
“I hope that Congress will address the ESA issue through the proper channels. However, I will play this card if we don’t start moving down a path of meaningful reform,” he said.