Letters From the West

Labrador’s grilling shows how polarized species issue remains

U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, right, with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., (Idaho Statesman File Photo)

U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, right, with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., (Idaho Statesman File Photo)

The House Natural Resources Committee earlier this week continued one of its chairman, Doc Hastings’ efforts to highlight the problems of the federal Endangered Species Act from the standpoint of primarily westerners caught up in the legal maneuvers by wildlife advocates to use the act to protect habitat.

Hastings starts from a place where most people on both sides can agree, that it is disappointing that the federal Endangered Species Act, the most powerful environmental law ever written, has not been reauthorized for 25 years. Unfortunately the hearing displayed the polarized attitudes out there that prevent serious discussion about reform that would make the law more efficient without giving up its teeth.

Most western Republicans want to eliminate its teeth, turning over the decisions to protect species on the brink of extinction to states. Most environmental groups want to protect the broad powers of the act because they believe protecting species won’t have major economic impacts. Many in the middle on both sides recognize a need to set better priorities for protection that acknowledge climatic trends.

You heard no middle ground in Hastings’ hearing.

Hastings script was to highlight environmental lawyers’ strategy to “sue and settle” with the Interior Department over its backlog of listing decisions. These settlements have forced action that many industries and states have sought to delay or avoid.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter successfully challenged the listing of the slickspot peppergrass recently giving Idaho ranchers breathing space on one of the long standing listing lawsuits. He likely did not stop more suits that will again lead to listing, but he did win the ranchers valuable time to work with the government to reduce the impacts of listing on their operations.

Republican Rep. Raul Labrador’s exchange with two of the top endangered species scholars, Reed Noss, who has worked closely with University of Idaho professor emeritus Michael Scott on programs to protect habitat before listing, and Pat Parenteau, formerly director of Vermont Law School’s Environmental Law Center, gives a good look at the two sides of the issue.

Noss said ”the threats that led to those species being listed in the first place have not abated, and most of them have gotten worse,” a fact that science supports. Then he said the federal government has never gotten enough money to do what the act said, which while true, misses the point that all the money in the world won’t save all of the species, many threatened by climate change.

Labrador responded: “So you are asking for more money. Could the answer just be that nature takes care of itself, that maybe we don’t know more than nature does? Your answer is to come from up top, telling nature what it needs to do and telling humans what they need to do, as opposed to realizing…that some species are going to go and some species are going to stay, and that’s just the regular evolutionary process. And you don’t know more than everybody else.”

Actually, Noss, one of the world’s top conservation biologists, does know more about endangered species than all but a small number of people on earth.

“Nature is still out there but its been overwhelmed by the human population and our consumption,” Noss replied.

Then Labrador asks if Noss still believes as he has written, “The collective needs of nonhuman species should take precedent over the needs and desires of humans.”

Reed then displays his personal opinion instead of a scientific opinion, which is what Labrador wanted.

“I do,” he said.

Labrador then turns to Parenteau and reads what he has written “Humanity threatens to turn the earth into a planet of weeds.”

“Do you still stand by that question?” Labrador asked.

“That’s what the science suggests,” Parenteau answered.

So there it is. The Great Divide.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West