Yesterday, the George W. Bush administration took another step toward rolling back much of the environmental progress that has been made over the last 20 years.

The Bush administration began lobbying Congress to make a crucial change to The Endangered Species Act.

The change would mandate that environmental groups and others could not be permitted to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service to get an animal or plant listed as endangered. While the suits wouldn't be completely stopped, the agency would have little money or power to deal with the lawsuits, and outsiders' bids to get new endangered species listed would be effectively prevented.

This may sound like a little thing, but the lawsuit process is critical in protecting animals that may fall into the "endangered" category in coming years.

Combine this with President Bush's determination to open up much of our wilderness areas to logging and mining, and it could spell potential disaster for many species on the borderline of extinction.

The proposed change is a bad idea, but it does have its heart in the right place. The Endangered Species Act is badly in need of revision. The nonstop lawsuits brought against the Fish and Wildlife Service make it nearly impossible for them to do their job.

Also a good deal of taxpayer money is wasted in dealing with frivolous claims to save plants and animals that are not truly in danger or worthy of federal protection.

In addition, The Endangered Species Act is notorious for mandating stringent solutions that often put the safety of certain species above all else. Finding rational, reasonable balances between communities, industry and the protection of endangered species is not their strongest talent.

It is definitely time for The Endangered Species Act to be reworked. President Bush is right to have recognized that. But his solution, like most of his environmental initiatives, is a bad idea.

If I were in charge of revamping The Endangered Species Act, I would set up an independent commission that would hold hearings on potential endangered species and decide on a proper course of action for each. I would end the lawsuit provision, as Bush would, but unlike the president I would replace it with mandatory hearings before this special commission.

Scientists, industry representatives, environmental activists and citizen lobbies would all be invited to nominate people for the commission. The Department of the Interior currently has something similar to this, but it is only called in for emergencies. Instead, it needs to be a permanent fixture.

Congress should also give The Endangered Species Act more flexibility in enforcing its rules, and perhaps draw up more guidelines governing appropriate actions to take in the protection of endangered species. Fish and Wildlife Service also needs a bigger budget to accommodate the growing number of species being protected by the Act.

The Endangered Species Act must also recognize that not all animals and plants are equally deserving of drastic measures to protect them.

An action that might be warranted in the preservation of the mountain lion might not be warranted in the preservation of a rare snail. We simply do not have the resources to guarantee the species survival of every species living within American borders.

Not to say that mountain lions are "better" than snails, but I think that as a society we are more interested in protecting the mountain lion. Our policy should reflect that.

Obviously, not all endangered species are the same.

No one is arguing that we should be trying to save the smallpox virus from extinction. Snails are important, but less so than bald eagles and cougars. And sometimes displacing entire communities and destroying local economies for a relatively minor species is unwarranted.

With Gail Norton as Secretary of the Interior (which oversees The Endangered Species Act and the Fish and Wildlife Service), it is more important than ever to give the power to determine which species are designated endangered to an independent commission. Letting the administration decide is a bad idea. I really don't want Norton, a noted opponent of all unprofitable species, deciding which species are worth saving.

Refining the focus of The Endangered Species Act is certainly not the same as cutting the program, which is the ultimate goal of Norton and the other extremists that populate Bush's environmental policy-making group.

Bush's initiative is the latest in a recent string of poor environmental policymaking by his administration. Luckily, even congressional Republicans are usually not willing to go as far as Bush is in reversing decades of environmental progress.

Congressional opposition is the only thing keeping oil drills out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In some things, however, Congress has little power.

One of those things is preventing Bush from opening up millions of acres of national forest to logging and oil drilling.

Hopefully, heads in Congress will keep The Endangered Species Act on track.

Another example of President Bush's hostility to the protection of endangered species is the rate at which endangered species are being added to the protected list.

From 1996 through 2000 approximately 50 species per year were added to the endangered list. In the first 7 months of the Bush administration just one species has been added -- and that was done by court order.

Some things are so obvious that we don't always think they're worth stating. One of the most common complaints regarding the Endangered Species Act is, "Why should we care about some damn darter snail or spotted owl?"

Every plant and animal has a niche on the ecosystem. Each feeds on something and is, in turn, fed on by others. We do not know the consequences of any single organism's extinction.

The biosphere is a complicated system. With every extinction we run the risk of a cascade event or domino effect. "For want of a nail...." or perhaps darter snail.

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