House panel kills Bush proposal on endangered species

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House panel kills Bush proposal on endangered specie.

June 8, 2001 Posted: 9:21 AM EDT (1321 GMT)

     
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Rejecting a prominent part of President Bush's environmental agenda, House Republicans shot down a proposal restricting the ability of environmental groups to get plants and animals added to the endangered species list.

At issue are the kind of lawsuits that largely have established the Interior Department's priorities in deciding which species deserve protection.

Mary Beth Beetham, director of legislative affairs for the Defenders of Wildlife, said the Bush provision "would have gutted citizen enforcement of the Endangered Species Act." But Interior Secretary Gale Norton has argued it was necessary to let the Fish and Wildlife Service do its job.

A Republican-led House subcommittee on Thursday removed language the administration had sought for the plan from an $18.9 billion lands and energy spending bill for 2002. The legislation sailed through the House Appropriations interior subcommittee on a voice vote.

The lawmakers also ignored Bush's request for $2 million for preparatory studies for oil drilling the president wants to begin in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That was the latest sign that Bush's proposal to drill in the sanctuary, opposed by environmentalists, is all but dead in Congress.

The bill would bust Bush's lands and energy budget by 4.4 percent, a testament to the spending appetite of lawmakers of both parties. It would boost Bush's request for energy research and conservation by $294 million to nearly $1.8 billion, and provide $1.32 billion for land conservation, $64 million over his request.

"Most of our bills will be pretty close to Bush," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Florida, said. "Will they be exactly the same? No, because Congress has the obligation to use its best judgment."

The bill's $1.32 billion for lands conservation is the continuation of a program Congress and President Clinton started last year. Much of the money is for land acquisition by the federal, state and local governments.

The bill also would provide:

* $436 million for maintenance of national parks, part of Bush's five-year, $5 billion proposal to reduce a backlog of repairs. That includes only about $60 million more than this year.

* $105 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, the same as this year and the same Bush proposed.

The administration's endangered species plan would have removed deadlines established by Congress in 1982 for the Interior Department to respond to citizen petitions on possible additions to the endangered species list, leaving Norton free to decide which animals and plants should have priority.

Environmentalists argue that without expeditious handling of such petitions, or later lawsuits, from citizens, species needing protection may suffer great losses or become extinct before federal protection is afforded.

"We will continue to address the issue and work to prioritize resources on species that have the greatest biological needs and not the most powerful set of attorneys," said Norton's spokesman, Mark Pfeifle.

Developers, industry and government agencies have complained for years that environmental groups use the endangered species law to force the government to designate "critical habitat" for species and tie up projects like dams and airport expansions in lengthy reviews.

There currently are more than 500 animals and 730 plants on the endangered list, while almost 250 candidate species are under review. At the same time, the Fish and Wildlife Service is contending with nearly 80 lawsuits focused on more than 400 species and has been served with notices of about 100 more lawsuits affecting some 600 species.

Fish and Wildlife estimates it needs $120 million over five years to deal with the animals and plants proposed for protections. Without that money, environmental groups say, some species awaiting protection could become extinct before getting that help.

The spending bill would cap at almost $8.5 million -- the amount Bush proposed -- the agency's budget for responding to those suits. But that is a $2.1 million increase over the amount Congress and Clinton agreed upon for this year.
 
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