The Endangered Species Act will remain mostly intact regardless of who is the next president, and that may dismay proponents of major changes, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said Thursday.
But Babbitt told a group devoted to reforming the landmark environmental law that the time is ripe for achieving some of the group’s goals, including more input from the public and state and local governments.
The coalition, including the American Farm Bureau Federation and rural electric cooperatives, also wants compensation for landowners who help protect wildlife habitat and want decisions about endangered species based on sound science.
“I’m quite optimistic that irrespective of who is finally declared to be president, the time is at hand” for the changes, Babbitt said at the gathering of the National Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition.
Babbitt’s appearance before the group of mostly Western business and political leaders was a bit like venturing into hostile territory. The former Arizona governor was seen as waging a “war on the West” as the administration revamped public-land policies in a region where the federal government controls huge swaths of some states.
He joked that his staff told him he shouldn’t bother to “consort with the enemy” in his waning days in office.
“The reason I really wanted to come is because it’s an important subject,” Babbitt said. “I’ve invested an enormous amount of my time and energy in it the last eight years.”
He said he believes the coalition is “verging ever so carefully” toward common ground with others on the issue.
The group had invited Babbitt to the forum thinking the president-elect would be known and a new administration’s course more predictable.
But with the election’s outcome in limbo because of the vote count in Florida, Republican Sens. Craig Thomas of Wyoming and Mike Crapo of Idaho hedged their prognostications about the fate of the Endangered Species Act.
Another wild card is the makeup of Congress, which will be almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Getting through even minor changes will be difficult, Crapo said.
But Crapo and Thomas agreed Republican George W. Bush likely would support reasonable changes, while Vice President Al Gore would not because of his environmental leanings.
He sees Gore siding with those who fear any changes will lead to the law’s overhaul.
Babbitt, though, said change is possible as long as extremists on both sides don’t prevail. The public won’t tolerate attempts to gut the law, he said.
“I know it has the enormous support of the American people,” Babbitt said.
“The reason is that this act more than any other environmental legislation is about values. It’s about who we are and where we stand in relation to creation.”
But he added some changes would improve the Endangered Species Act, including codification of some of the administration’s policies. He said a big success was habitat-preservation plans with landowners and local governments that are intended to protect an entire ecosystem rather than just one species.
Babbitt said the law should be adjusted to formally give states and American Indian tribes a part in the process.
And landowners who cooperate in preserving habitat should be compensated. Babbitt, however, criticized the push for “takings” legislation, which would compensate landowners not only when their property is taken but also when regulations affect the use of their property.
“You’re on the right track,” he said, “but takings will sink the whole thing.”