November 15, 2003
By MELINDA BURNS
NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER
A day after he was quoted saying the federal Endangered Species Act was “broken,” a senior Interior Department official sought to clarify his remarks, stating he did not foresee any major changes in the law.
Assistant Secretary of Interior Craig Manson was one of three keynote speakers at a three-day, closed-door conference in Santa Barbara this week on the Endangered Species Act, which is 30 years old next month. On Friday, several speakers criticized Mr. Manson, who was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying that the law should be revised to put agriculture and development on an equal footing with endangered plants and animals.
“I didn’t say that,” Mr. Manson said. “I said the act is at its zenith in its ability to protect a few species from specific threats, and it's at its nadir when it has to resolve complex questions that have to do with economics and sociology. I don't foresee any major legislative changes in the Endangered Species Act anytime in the future.”
The headline, Mr. Manson said, should have read: “Habitat: Bush Official Says He’s For It.”
Instead, it read: “Species Protection Act ‘Broken.’”
The conference at the Radisson Hotel was organized by professors at UCSB, the University of Idaho and Columbia University. Attendance was by invitation only, in order to avoid the "public posturing" that has characterized previous forums, said Frank Davis, a UCSB geographer and one of the conference hosts.
Roughly 100 scientists, government officials, environmentalists and property rights advocates attended, primarily from the West. They discussed whether the Endangered Species Act, essentially an “emergency room” approach to saving plants and animals, was effective, how it could be improved on, and who should carry it out.
“It’s still young,” Mr. Davis said. “We’re still learning how to work with it.”
The Endangered Species Act has had modest success in saving species from extinction so far. Of 1,260 species listed since 1973, 83 are believed to already be extinct and 417, or a third, are in decline, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Eighteen species have recovered, and 108, or 9 percent, are improving. Another 369 are listed in stable condition.
“We need to make species more secure,” said Michael Bean, director of the wildlife program for Environmental Defense, a national nonprofit group. “We need a program that is more effective and less burdensome. We need less bureaucracy and more resources. We need more candor and less rancor if we are ever going to forge a common understanding.”
Policies and principles discussed at the conference will be forwarded to legislators next spring. A book by the participants, “The Endangered Species Act at 30: Lessons and Prospects,” will be published late next year.
Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt joined Mr. Manson in saying Fish and Wildlife was taking too long designating critical habitat for each listed species, in response to lawsuits filed by the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity and other groups. Under the act, the agency has one year after a listing to make such a designation.
“We now have a string of court orders through the year 2008 ordering Fish and Wildlife to designate critical habitat,” Mr. Manson said. “Frequently, at the time of listing, they don't know enough to do a decent job. It means the biologists will be tied up.
“I believe there are superior ways to create and conserve real habitat for species. We have literally millions of dollars for conservation efforts.”
Studies show that rare species have a better chance at surviving if their most important habitats are shown on maps. In Santa Barbara County, the designations have encompassed hundreds of thousands of acres of public and private land where listed species such as the arroyo toad, California red-legged frog, La Graciosa thistle, Gaviota tarplant and Lompoc yerba santa can be found.
Last summer, a federal judge gave Fish and Wildlife until Jan. 15 to draw a map of critical habitat for the California tiger salamander, an endangered species that survives in six fragmented North County populations. The agency is now proposing to downgrade the status of the salamander to threatened.
Mr. Bean noted that the critical habitat designation mainly applies to federal projects that may harm an endangered species.
“Both its danger to landowners and benefits to species have been exaggerated,” he said.
At the same time, Mr. Bean said, habitat preservation is the most important part of the act. Studies show that the biggest threat to species is the loss or degradation of their habitat. Most of the listed species still in decline are being lost to dams, creek diversion and development.
The Bush administration has placed 20 species on the endangered list so far. “I don’t see anything significant in that,” Mr. Manson said.
At the end of the conference Friday, William Snape III, a vice president of Defenders of Wildlife, a national environmentalist group, noted that the polls show 85 percent of Americans like the Endangered Species Act.
“We’ve got the money, we’ve got the political support, and we’ve got the law,” Mr. Snape said. “Do we have the energy? Do we have the guts? Do we have the mutual trust to make it work?”
U.S. Assistant Secretary of Interior Craig Manson was a keynote speaker at a conference on the Endangered Species Act in Santa Barbara this week. Mr. Manson, who oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says lawsuits have tied the agency’s hands in recent years.
Photo: Mike Eliason/News-Press
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