WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama overrode the Bush administration Tuesday on a key step in administering the Endangered Species Act, restoring a requirement that federal agencies consult with experts on threatened species before launching construction projects that could affect the species’ well-being.
Environmentalists said reinstating the requirement would block the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service and others from “nibbling away” at critical wildlife habitat; business and industry groups warned that it could hamper road building and other projects that would help jump-start the economy.
President George W. Bush’s rule change, finalized in December, allowed federal agencies to determine on their own if projects would jeopardize endangered species instead of requiring them to consult with expert biologists, as had been done for the last three decades. It gave agencies the option of calling on experts from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Obama again made such consultation mandatory. He announced the change during a celebration of the 160th anniversary of the Interior Department, telling cheering employees that the requirement would “restore the scientific process to its rightful place at the heart of the Endangered Species Act.”
Technically, Obama did not overturn the Bush rule, which would have required a lengthy process. Instead, he issued a memorandum instructing agencies to exercise the consultation option in every instance and to continue doing so until the Interior and Commerce departments could reconsider the Bush rule change.
“This is very good news for endangered species,” said Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The regulations that President Bush issued were clearly illegal, and they were bad policy, to boot.”
Michael Bean, director of wildlife programs for the Environmental Defense Fund, said forced consultation with expert biologists tempered the ambitions of the Army Corps, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Reclamation and other agencies that “have historically had pretty strong mission drives, which have maybe overwhelmed concerns about species.”
Industry lobbyists said Tuesday that Obama’s decision to mandate consultations would add “red tape” to infrastructure projects funded by the economic-stimulus bill.
Even clean-energy plans, such as wind farms, could be slowed down, said Michael Olsen, a former Bush Interior official who now lobbies for energy interests at Bracewell & Giuliani.
Environmentalists scoffed at those warnings. “This kind of scientific consultation was how the Endangered Species Act worked for 30 years,” said Athan Manuel, director of lands protection for the Sierra Club. “So I think that’s sour grapes.”