WASHINGTON, DC, August 21, 2008 (ENS) - Saying the Bush administration's most recent Endangered Species Act rulemaking is "anti-democratic," 104 conservation and scientific organizations today submitted a letter to Cabinet officials calling for increased transparency and opportunities for public participation.
The new rule published in the Federal Register last week would change the way the Endangered Species Act is administered concerning both land and marine species.
The groups say the rule would "radically weaken" the Endangered Species Act yet only 30 days have been allowed for public comment and the public comment process has been restricted in other ways as well.
Their letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez requests an extension of the comment period to 120 days.
The groups say a longer comment period would allow the public adequate time "to address the breadth and depth that these changes to the Endangered Species Act regulations will have on protecting our most imperiled wildlife."
The rule would, for the first time, give federal agencies the authority to decide without expert consultation whether their activities such as logging, mining or roadbuilding could harm endangered and threatened species. It also would prohibit consideration of the impacts of global warming on wildlife.
The rule states, "These regulations would reinforce the Services' current view that there is no requirement to consult on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions' contribution to global warming and its associated impacts on listed species (e.g., polar bears)."
Earlier this year, Secretary Kempthorne added the polar bear to the federal endangered species list, classifying it as Threatened. But he qualified the listing with a requirement that it cannot be used to limit greenhouse gas emissions although it is the warming climate that is destroying the sea ice needed for polar bear survival.
Administration officials maintain the proposed rule is a minor change that would make the law easier to implement, but the conservation groups say the rule is a fundamental change in the law that will hurt wildlife's chances for survival.
"Rather than a narrow tweaking of the regulations, the proposal represents a back-door attack on the Endangered Species Act," said Leda Huta, director of the Endangered Species Coalition, a national network of hundreds of conservation, scientific, sporting, religious, humane, business and community groups.
"The American people deserve and expect a full public process to vet such far-reaching changes to this landmark conservation law," Huta said.
The administration is refusing to accept e-mail comments or hold public hearings on the proposed rule.
Instead, comments will be accepted by postal mail, or through a government website that warns reviewers their personal information will be posted on the Internet for public dissemination.
"It appears as if the administration is doing whatever it can to discourage participation in the democratic process," said John Kostyack, of the National Wildlife Federation. "I think we can expect more sneaky assaults like this on our public land and wildlife laws as this administration heads for the exits."
The proposed regulatory changes were published on August 15, while Congress was out for recess and many Americans were enjoying the summer holiday.
The groups warn that the abbreviated timeline and restrictive commenting options raise serious concerns that the Department of the Interior and the Department of Commerce is attempting to rewrite a bedrock environmental statute without allowing for adequate public involvement.
Sean Cosgrove with the Conservation Law Foundation said today, "For one of our nation’s most important and successful environmental laws, the 30 day comment period is woefully inadequate for the public to review and comment on this critical proposal."
"The Bush administration proposal eliminates the critical checks and balances needed to protect imperiled birds and cuts species experts from the process of making decisions that need to be science-based," said Mike Daulton, with National Audubon Society, a bird conservation organization.
"The Endangered Species Act is a safety net for our nation’s wildlife, fish and plants on the brink of extinction, said Bill Snape of the Center for Biological Diversity. "The Bush administration’s proposed regulations will cut a giant loophole in the safety net."
Susan Holmes of Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law firm, said, "Animals on the brink of extinction need consideration and protection guided by the best experts in the federal government - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service biologists."
To read the proposed rule in the Federal Register and the instructions for submitting comments, click here.