Many folks in Congress would like to tame the Endangered Species Act, and the debate is getting pretty wild.
That will be obvious in Lewiston Saturday. There will be a parade, rallies and rousing rhetoric, all prompted by a U.S. Senate hearing scheduled for 2 p.m. at the Ramada Inn.
Busloads of people are expected to arrive from as far away as Montana and southeastern Idaho. They’ll be hot to tell the politicians that the Endangered Species Act should be defanged because it’s tearing communities apart; or that it should be preserved, because human beings need it as much as plants and animals do.
“There are people who think we’re above needing healthy ecosystems, that we’re immune from the natural world,” said Jeff Hedge, a Spokane psychiatrist.
Hedge is one of many people who have asked Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho, for an invitation to speak at the hearing.
Kempthorne heads the Fisheries, Drinking Water and Wildlife Subcommittee. By autumn, he expects to produce a bill revising the Endangered Species Act.
Speakers haven’t been announced yet. But people who aren’t invited panelists can sign up Saturday to speak during an “open mike” session, according to Kempthorne press secretary Mark Snider.
Those itching to speak include workers whose livelihoods depend on trees - a vital raw material, as well as vital animal habitat.
Lewiston carpenter Marvin Dugger said the Endangered Species Act is ripping the Northwest apart.
“It’s put tens of thousands of people out of work, especially in California, Oregon and Washington with the spotted owl. Now we’re seeing it come into Idaho with the wolf, the grizzly bear and the salmon,” said Dugger. “We don’t feel the act should be repealed, but it does need change.”
Dugger works at the Potlatch Corp. pulp mill. He is helping organize a 9 a.m. parade starting at Kiwanis Park, and a following rally at the Ramada.
The events will be sponsored by the Pulp and Paper Resource Council, which represents mills around the country; and Alliance for America, which is composed of grass-roots organizations.
National officers of both groups live in Lewiston, Dugger said. They helped convince Kempthorne to hold a hearing in their town, where feelings about salmon protection run especially high. Other Northwest hearings will be held in Oregon’s spotted owl country, and in Wyoming, where wolf reintroduction is the big issue.
Conservationists by the busload will arrive in Lewiston, including some from the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene area.
They’ll rally at noon in the rose garden park next to the Clearwater River bridge, according to John McCarthy of the Idaho Conservation League.
Most environmentalists agree the Endangered Species Act can be improved. They just don’t want it gutted.
Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation disputed the notion that the act is causing huge economic problems, especially in the Northern Rockies.
“We’ve stabilized the grizzly bear population, and we still have timber harvest and recreational access,” said he said. “The same is true with wolf recovery, black-footed ferrets, bald eagles.”
Because of the Endangered Species Act, France added, Kootenai River sturgeon are getting enough water this spring to spawn. That wouldn’t have happened without the force of the federal law, he said.
Industry lobbyist Jim Riley thinks too much pressure by the federal government keeps people from cooperating to save plants and animals.
“The listing of a species is such an onerous, horrible thing that we do anything to avoid it,” said Riley, who represents the Intermountain Forest Industry Association. “It’s a heavyhanded form of government that results in antagonism.”
xxxx Drastic changes mark Gorton’s ESA proposal It seems no one is trying to scrap the Endangered Species Act outright. Even the most conservative Western politicians recognize the law’s strong popular support. But change it drastically? You bet. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., fired the opening volley this month when he introduced the session’s first bill reauthorizing the 22-year-old conservation act. Gorton’s bill isn’t expected to survive. For one thing, it has to get through the subcommittee chaired by Idaho Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, who is considered more moderate on the issue and intends to produce his own bill by fall. But Gorton’s bill illustrates how drastically some people want the law changed, and the issues being debated. It would: Make it easier for companies to develop areas that are now protected habitat. Give the Interior or Commerce secretary leeway to decide which species would have their habitat protected. Destroying its habitat would not be considered “harming” a species. The secretary would have to weigh social and economic costs in deciding whether a species was worth saving. Allow owners of property on which threatened species live to use their land for activities such as logging for up to 18 months while a conservation plan is devised. Allow the counting of hatchery-bred fish and captivebred wildlife populations as meeting conservation goals. Allow citizens to go to court in an effort to reverse a government decision to list a species.