Western governors met privately Wednesday to bridge disputes over one of the West’s most divisive issues, the Endangered Species Act.
The 10 governors emerged praising legislation being drafted in Washington by two influential senators that would give states a larger role in carrying out the act. It also would raise the threshold for getting species listed.
The public and news media were barred from the first 1-3/4 hours of the Western Governors’ Association meeting, held as part of the National Governors’ Association annual summer meeting.
By the time it opened up, the governors had finished talking about it.
But several governors and aides interviewed later said it dominated the meeting. They added they were encouraged by changes under consideration by Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, and Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho, chairman of a subcommittee on endangered species.
The still-unwritten bill would encourage efforts to address multiple species rather than focusing on individual ones, according to those at the meeting familiar with the legislation.
And it would bring about studies to determine which current practices might trigger a listing under the act.
However, a memo distributed at the gathering said governors would like to see a “more effective, less costly delisting process” not now part of the senators’ emerging bill.
The act has sparked bitter disputes throughout the West; it pitted development, timber and fishing interests against environmentalists.
“There are groups that have extremely different positions” on the act, said Nebraska Gov. E. Benjamin Nelson. “Where the truth has to be on this is somewhere in the center, where there’s no question that (people) have a responsibility to the universe and to other species, but the question is how do you balance the interests.”
For instance, some species are endangered in certain areas but considered pests in others, he said.
In Washington on Wednesday, a top Democrat on the House Resources Committee said he is preparing an alternative to the Chafee-Kempthorne measure. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said he intends to formally introduce the bill by the end of the week to provide tax breaks for land owners who enter into agreements with the federal government to protect habitat for troubled species.
Several governors said in interviews they believed the Chafee-Kempthorne amendments would decrease the level of acrimony.
“It’s always been a difficult and pressing issue for Western governors, because reaching a balance between protecting the environment and the economic interests has been delicate,” said Nevada Gov. Bob Miller.
Nevada accomplished that recently by relocating endangered desert tortoises from the Las Vegas valley to another area, he said.
One of the Western governors’ challenges, Nelson said, is improving the West’s image on environmental issues.
“Hopefully, there’ll be a better understanding that the governors of the West don’t deserve the image that sometimes I think the Eastern establishment, particularly the media, has that we’re all Buffalo Bill, buffalo killers,” he said. “That part of the West has been retired a long time ago.”
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