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December 06, 2016
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Threatening endangered species

Here in the Upper Delaware River Valley, living close to nature, we realize its great value to our lives; we understand the importance of preserving our pristine rivers and streams, our healthy forests and nature’s critical diversity of species. In the language of science, we value our region’s amazing biodiversity and the essential ecosystems on which the river valley’s species depend.

An essential element of preserving biodiversity and ecosystems is defending threatened and endangered (T&E) species. Now, however, both in Washington, DC and in Harrisburg, PA, there are lawmakers seeking to weaken the process for protecting T&E species. The proposed Pennsylvania law is called, innocently enough, the Endangered Species Coordination Act. We believe it is not so innocent.

We join those who are expressing their grave concern at the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC), which has jurisdiction over listing T&E animals and birds, and those at the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PF&BC), which has jurisdiction over listing fish, reptiles and amphibians. We join also with the Northeast PA chapter of the Audubon Society, the Delaware Riverkeeper and others who are speaking out against the bills (House Bill 1576 and Senate Bill 1047).

The most serious problem with the proposed law is that it would turn over to bureaucrats at the state’s Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC) and to the legislature’s standing committees the final decision on whether to list or to delist a species, opening what has previously been a science-based process to politicization. As one legislator, who supports the House bill, told a constituent, “The independent review provided by IRRC is in place to provide accountability.” For us this raises the question of accountability to whom?

Other critics, such as PGC Executive Director Carl Roe, maintain that regulatory review by the IRRC is completely redundant to the process (because the boards of commissioners at the PGC and PF&BC already are fully independent agencies), and that the bills’ proposals would make the listing process burdensome, inefficient and slow by adding a new layer of bureaucracy.

The same legislator cited above went on to say that “lawmakers have for years heard concerns and frustrations from business and industry, as well as local government planners and conservation project planers about the cumbersome, non-transparent and time-consuming nature of the review process for environmental permitting… House Bill 1576 could serve to improve that system… while creating a proper balance between economic growth and environmental protection.”

To us, this is the heart of the matter—legislators seeking to move the process to be more favorable to business interests at the expense of an environmental process that has worked for many years and achieved positive results.

As for the commonly expressed concern that protecting species is anti-business or anti-development, PF&BC Executive Director John Arway, calling the House bill “critically flawed, even with its proposed amendments,” testified that his agency is “not the obstacle to development that some have claimed…We take our responsibility of advising business, individuals and other agencies seriously, and we know that the best way to do our jobs is by being as cooperative and timely as possible. Indeed, our commitment to work with industry is not new… We are committed to this collaborative approach and believe that it is preferable to dismantling 40 years of science-based decision making, which HB 1576 would do.”

Likewise PGC’s Roe testified that at his agency, “We have assisted many companies in their preplanning goals that have in fact saved them considerable costs... As an agency we feel we are a facilitator in this process and we work to insure both the industry and the species concerned are protected.”

At the same time as PA’s T&E species face tougher scrutiny for gaining protection, in Washington, DC the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) is also under attack. The Senate bill (SB 1731), introduced by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV),would require that any species currently listed nationally is to be removed from the list after a five-year period regardless of its status, and only after a joint resolution of Congress would their protections be renewed for another five years. Members of the U.S. House have introduced their own proposal.

We believe that the attempts to weaken and/or dismantle protections for T&E species would wrongly tilt the advantage to private, corporate economic interests that seek short-term financial gain at the expense of the long-term health and sustainability of our forests, rivers and streams, and diverse ecosystems.

Forty years ago, the federal ESA of 1973 was signed into law by President Richard Nixon, a Republican. We believe that since then, the rules to protect species and their habitats on both state and federal levels have provided a workable and successful framework that brings different interests to the table to reach mutual accommodations. We believe that science should trump politics in this matter. We believe that sustaining habitat and protecting species and their ecosystems is good for everybody, including good for the economy. (Think of our own Upper Delaware River and its importance as an economic engine, which requires our long-term protection.) We believe that there is an effective T&E species program already in place in Pennsylvania and that it does not need to be “fixed.”