The Bush administration is approving only about one of every two acres that federal biologists propose setting aside to help vanishing species recover, according to a National Wildfire Federation analysis of an administration study.
Between 2001 and 2003, the government cut 42 million acres from plans to create nearly 83 million acres of critical habitat for threatened and endangered species, a federation found.
The administration also more often cited economic reasons to justify decisions to reduce acreage. In 2001, that rationale was used to trim about 1 percent of the acreage; by 2003, that had risen to 69 percent.
The federation contends the administration is trying to undermine the Endangered Species Act and that not enough consideration is given to the benefits of protecting species, which include their uses in recreation, science, water and soil quality, and climate.
Administration and industry officials say the legal action is meant to stop development.
Case of the Topeka shiner
The federation's analysis is based on a study, provided to The Associated Press, of all critical habitat plans prepared during the Bush administration by the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.
The government is required by law to set aside areas that dwindling species need to survive and recover.
John Kostyack, the group’s senior counsel, noted a budget office memo regarding a 2002 plan for designating critical habitat for the Topeka shiner, an endangered minnow.
The memo says “the benefits ... are not relevant to the policy decision at hand” — how much land should be set aside in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota.
In a second example, environmental groups sued the government over a decision to cut to 740,000 acres the nearly 1.7 million acres first proposed in California for protecting seasonal ponds that support 15 species of rare plants and tiny shrimp.
The government had estimated the designation could cost developers $1.3 billion over 20 years for additional consultant fees and modifications to projects. Kostyack said some counties had said they would have no added costs for protecting species.
Even with the scaled-down plan, White House budget office spokesman Chad Colton said the administration was designating a significant amount of critical habitat.
The Interior Department has $12 million for its endangered species listing program on public lands and in some marine areas. It asked Congress starting in 1997 to cap the amount for critical habitat, now at $9 million, so environmentalists could not dictate priorities.
Craig Manson, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for fish and wildlife, said the administration is only putting to use a part of the law that says critical habitat can be excluded if the economic or other benefits of protecting species do not outweigh the costs.
Manson said the administration has used economic analyses to exclude critical habitat far more than in previous years because “critical habitat provides little additional benefit to species over and above” those when a species is designated as threatened or endangered.
He said that step leads the government to spend hundreds of millions through voluntary programs involving private landowners and farmers.
“All of those acres ... have done far more good than critical habitat, because those are actively managed parcels,” he said. “The point is not that there’s anything wrong with habitat; we’re for it. We’re for the recovery of imperiled species.”