Could Bush's Environmental Moves Make Him an Endangered Species?

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George W. Bush has never claimed any tree-hugging tendencies. But now, after several weeks of ill-received backpedaling on the environment by his administration, even green groups that vowed to withhold judgment on the new president are throwing aside restraint and going on the attack.

The last straw? On Thursday, the Bush administration announced it would seek to eliminate a provision of the Endangered Species Act that allows private groups to sue the Department of the Interior to add plants and animals to the official "endangered" list (and therefore make them subject to federal protection). The move, criticized by one environmental leader as "an invitation to extinction," would maintain the right to sue on paper — but would discourage petitions by reducing the Interior Department's budget for dealing with citizen actions, leaving suits filed by tenacious groups or individuals languishing on dusty shelves.

It hasn't been a great couple of months for Washington's environmental lobby. Bush's new budget was delivered Monday; it cuts roughly $500 million from the EPA's coffers. In addition, the new administration has advocated oil exploration in Alaska's National Wildlife Refuge, struck down newly enacted emissions limits for power stations and abandoned updated standards for the amount of arsenic in water. And so, despite assurances from an Interior Department spokesman that Thursday's announcement simply represents a way out from the weight of accumulating citizen lawsuits and "to help us move toward a rational system," Bush's latest decision is being perceived as yet another kick in the shins.

"This is very bad news," says a research scientist with the biological resources division of the U.S. Geological Survey, who specializes in endangered species research, and who, as a government employee, prefers to remain anonymous. "This move is far too extreme — and it's also ironic, considering Bush's campaign promises to make government more responsive to citizens. Now he's decided to give government the upper hand, and to cut the public out of a decision-making process that impacts all of us."

Douglas Candland, a professor of animal behavior at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., argues that Bush's decision sends the wrong message to Americans. "The right to sue under the Endangered Species Act is an issue of guardianship," Cartland says. "In the same spirit as I could report neighbors abusing their children, the act provides me with an avenue to report the abuse of wild animals." Cartland also worries that Bush's decision may affect the U.S.'s standing in the world. "Once again, our government is acting like our interests are the only ones involved," he says.

Some federal lawmakers are already gearing up for a fight. "I don't think Congress will let this pass without a great deal of debate," says the U.S. Geological Survey employee. "Approving this decision would destroy the spirit of the act as it was conceived 30 years ago."