The Fake Fight on Endangered Species

The art of betraying binding commitments in politics is to swear that never will you adopt a particular course of action, while at the same time inching along that same line by prudent and tactful degrees. It's the way Woodrow Wilson got America into World War I; it's the way FDR got America into World War II; and it's the way Bill Clinton is gutting the Endangered Species Act.

This act, passed in 1973 in the reign of good King Richard Nixon, friend to all living things, was one of the single most important pieces of environmental legislation in the nation's history. Now watch it die. If you want an analogy, look at what Clinton did to welfare. First he said welfare merited reform, but he wouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Then he said he would resist to the death unconscionable Republican plans to do away with welfare. Then, finally, he signed on to legislation--labeled an honorable compromise satisfactory to moderate opinion--throwing out the babies, the single mothers, and most of the bathwater with enthusiastic support from most of the Democrats and every woman senator, except for Carole Moseley-Braun who, it turns out, may also be the only member of Congress to offer a bill actually strengthening rather than destroying the present Endangered Species Act.

In September of this year Alaskan congressman Don Young, head of the House Resources Committee, and California Republican Richard Pombo--a rancher--introduced a bill that would straightforwardly dismantle the Endangered Species Act. It would allow the secretaries of the interior and commerce departments full license to permit the extinguishing of species. It also promises enormous handouts to any corporation pleading that existing legislation on preserving species has cost it money.

This "extreme" bill has been the first part of an elaborate bait and switch. The second part was another bill introduced by Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland, a leader of the so-called moderate Republican revolt in the House. His is a lightly greenwashed version of the bill put forward by Young and Pombo. Instead of the cabinet members acting as a two-person God Squad decreeing extinctions without appeal, it sets up an advisory panel, handpicked by the secretaries, which would do cost-benefit analysis on whether a species was worth saving or not.

Thus we have the traditional fake battle so necessary to liberal illusions and agendas. The big national groups are already raising money by the sackload with impassioned emergency appeals to "save" the Endangered Species Act. Most prominent here is an organization called Defenders of Wildlife, which vows in its fundraising literature that it "will be the last line of defense for America's endangered species." Needless to say, Defenders of Wildlife was among the very first to sign onto the Gilchrest bill, swiftly followed by other big groups like the National Wildlife Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, and the Wilderness Society.

The Gilchrest bill is carefully styled to appeal precisely to the neoliberal tastes of Defenders of Wildlife and Bill Clinton. Indeed, Clinton has called Defenders his favorite environmental group, citing its promotion of free-market environmentalism. Just before Labor Day Clinton hunkered down for a strategy talk with Defenders officials in the course of his golfing trip to Yellowstone National Park. Clinton emerged from the meeting saying that the "corner had been turned on the Endangered Species Act. There will be changes, but the Act will be saved."

Soon after this conclave, Defenders announced its support for the Gilchrest bill, which offers all important "market incentives" to private landowners to protect nature. Under its terms, the Feds would either buy conservation easements on private lands, or would pay private owners compensation against financial losses incurred during the protection of a species. All this has very little to do with small landowners and everything to do with big corporate outfits such as timber and mining companies and coastal developers who will be promised lavish payoffs for not destroying nature.

Because the environmentalists were unable to convince any Democrats in the House to introduce a bill strengthening or even maintaining the existing Endangered Species Act, the Gilchrest Bill has now become the "environmentalist" bill. Sensing an opportunity to crush the Endangered Species Act with one hand and while waving the peacemaker's with the other, Newt Gingrich recently entered the fray. After several meetings with sociobiologists such as Harvard's E.O. Wilson, who no doubt sees the Endangered Species Act as an impediment to proper Darwinian combat, Gingrich says he's prepared to offer a fusion bill melding the two sides. This bill is likely to be carried through the House by Representative James Saxton of New Jersey early next year.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Montana Democrat Max Baucus has announced his intention to introduce a bill that will do for the Senate what the Gingrich bill will do in the House. This disastrous bill also stands a good chance of garnering an endorsement from the D.C. greens, since Max Baucus's former chief of staff, Rodger Schlickeisen, now serves as president of Defenders of Wildlife.

But behind this legislative bait and switch--which augers easy passage of the "Gingrich compromise"--is another bait and switch already accomplished by Clinton and Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt. This is the old Washington ploy of making a huge legislative uproar over something that has already happened. With all eyes fixed on the mighty fight to the death over the Endangered Species Act, the Clinton administration has already hollowed out the Act by administrative decrees. Within months of taking office Clinton and Babbitt offered up the blue-gray gnatcatcher to California developers under the famous win-win compromise pioneered by California Governor Pete Wilson's environmental bureaucrats.

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