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Red herrings of the wise use movement.

Have you heard about the spotted owls seen breeding on the roof of a Kmart? The man who was fined for shooting a grizzly bear that was about to eat him? The farmer who lost his tractor and was jailed because he accidentally ran over a rat? The people burned out of their homes because of that same rat? The lizard that caused the flooding of a fertile farm valley?

In the debate over gutting the Endangered Species Act, the one species that seems in no need of protection is the red herring. Industry lobbyists and members of the anti-environmental Wise Use movement are hand-feeding horror stories to Rush Limbaugh, his radio clones, and the editorial-page writers at The Wall Street Journal. The stories then get passed on to the wire services and TV, often with little or no fact-checking along the way.

Take the rat. In October of 1993 a wildfire swept through Riverside County, California, burning 25,000 acres and destroying twenty-nine homes. Later, ABC reporter John Stossel aired a 20/20 segment on how Endangerd Species Act protection for the brushy habitat of Stephen's kangaroo rats prevented owners from "disking" firebreaks around their homes, resulting in the tragic loss of their property. It was a great TV story, an example of government regulation gone mad, with strong visuals thrown in. Unfortunately, the spoilsports at the Government Accounting Office investigated the story and found it to be untrue. Some cleared properties were consumed by flames, while a number of brush-heavy homes were spared, all depending on the winds.

On February 20, 1994, state and federal agents raided the Bakersfield, California, fields of Taiwanese businessman and farmer Tang Ming-Lin, seized his tractor, and charged him with three violations of the Endangered Species Act, including the killing of kangaroo rats his farm manager had run over.

"When a man's tractor is taken away and he faces jail for killing a rat, that's when we feel the law has gone awry," said Bob Devereux, an organizer of local protests that followed the raid. Lin's case quickly became a cause celebre among "property-rights" advocates ranging from Rush Limbaugh to the California Farm Bureau to pro-business nonprofit law firms like the Pacific Legal Foundation and Washington Legal Foundation, which called to offer free legal support.

State and federal agents (who later dropped all criminal charges) claimed Lin had been repeatedly informed that he was illegally tilling protected habitat and needed to apply for an "incidental-take" permit, but continued his plowing.

The real rat in the case, however, may turn out to be the Tenneco land company. Lin is now suing Tenneco, claiming that when he purchased his 723 acres of saline scrub land for $1.5 million in 1990, they failed to inform him it was also critical habitat for three endangered species: the kangaroo rat, leopard lizard, and San Joaquin kit fox, all of which had been driven out of surrounding irrigated fields.

The Endangered Species Act, passed with broad bipartisan support and signed into law by President Nixon in 1973, has, over more than two decades, proved successful in saving close to 200 species from extinction, including the peregrine falcon, bald eagle, and gray whale. Still, as wilderness habitat has shrunk or been contaminated by rapid development, logging, mining, and other extractive industries, the number of U.S. plant and animal species listed as threatened has risen to more than 800. According to Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, human-caused species extinctions, mostly due to loss of habitat, are now advancing at 10,000 times the natural rate.

The chances for maintaining healthy wolf and grizzly bear habitat in the lower forty-eight states, for example, remain bleak as the large roadless areas they need for survival have shrunk to about 1 percent of their historic range. But predators without PACs remain a target of opportunity for Western politicians like Utah's Orrin Hatch, who in July complained that under the Endangered Species Act, "a man was fined $4,000 for not letting a grizzly bear kill him."

That man, Montana sheep rancher John Schuler, shot a two-year-old bear after it repeatedly raided his sheep corral. The Montana Department of Fish and Game had offered to finance installation of an electric fence or even to shoot the "problem bear" if it continued its raids (they'd captured and relocated it once before). During its fourth and final raid, Schuler went outside and shot the young bear himself. The next morning he found it lying wounded near his house and finished it off. In court Schuler claimed he shot the bear in self-defense, an argument the judge didn't buy. Two environmental groups have since paid to have an electric fence installed around Schuler's corral.

In an unrelated case, rancher Richard Christy complained at a Wise Use rally in Ronan, Montana, last year that he'd been fined $3,000 for shooting a bear he said attacked his sheep. "Shoot, Shovel, and Shut Up!" the crowed chanted (kill the animal, bury it, and don't tell anyone).

In Idaho, U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents investigating the shooting of a recently reintroduced and radio-collared wolf were confronted by an angry rancher and local sheriff who threatened to call out the local militia against them. Senator Larry Craig of Idaho responded to the incident by calling for the disarming of Fish and Wildlife agents.

A National Research Council report commissioned by Congress in 1993 (and released in May of 1995 against the wishes of Senators Hatch and Craig) found that the Endangered Species law is a "critically important" tool for preserving biological diversity, but that its provisions for protecting wildlife habitat need to be strengthened, not weakened.

That's unlikely as the 104th Congress debates two measures designed to gut the act.

In April Senator Slade Gorton of Washington unveiled his Senate bill in a speech before timber-industry executives at a resort in southern Washington. The bill would eliminate habitat protection for threatened plants and animals (an industry proposal rejected by the Supreme Court this June) and would shelve any plans aimed at species recovery. In addition, it would allow the Secretary of the Interior, a political appointee, rather than biologists, to decide which species to protect, and then only from direct killing and trapping.

The bill's language was drafted by lawyers representing the timber, mining, beef, and utility industries that make up the core of the national Endangered Species Reform Coalition (as opposed to the Endangered Species Coalition, made up of environmentalists, fishermen, scientists, and others who support the law).

Asked by The New York Times if having industries with direct economic interests rewriting the Act might not constitute a conflict of interest, Gorton replied that, "I'm perfectly willing to get the free services of good lawyers in drafting my views." Gorton also willingly took $34,000 in contributions from Reform Coalition members during his 1994 campaign.

Amazingly, the Endangered Species bill introduced in the House by Representative Don Young of Alaska is more militant than the Gorton Senate version. In addition to all of Gorton's provisions, it adds a "takings" clause that says any enforcement of the surviving law that adversely affects the property value of any landowner must be financially compensated for by the government. Young, a former professional trapper and head of the House Resources Committee (formerly the Natural Resources Committee before he dropped the word "Natural"), has made it clear he's tired of "federal goons" messing with industry.

"We create parks and refuges and wilderness areas, but they create no dollars for the American worker," he claims. "Mining creates jobs, trees create jobs, farming creates jobs, and American factories create jobs. That is what we should be addressing in this Congress."

Since the 1989 court order that halted logging on public old-growth forests where spotted owls breed and feed, the Northwest timber industry has argued that owls not only cost jobs but also are prolific breeders that don't need old growth to reproduce. Industry sources (endorsed by "eco-optimist" author Greg Easterbrook) have reported sighting owls getting it on in second-growth tree farms, in logging slash, in mulberry bushes, even atop a Kmart shopping mall in southern Oregon. A number of owls have been killed (and at least one nailed to a Forest Service signpost) by extremists opposed to their protection.

"I remember being at a meeting with [former Idaho] Senator [James] McClure, and someone said, 'Well, you don't have any spotted owls here in Idaho,' and his response was, 'Well, if I thought those bastards would try and cross the border, me and my buddies would stand on the state line and shoot them down,'" recalls George Rieger, conservation editor of Field and Stream magazine.

Unfortunately for McClure, who, as a timber and mining lobbyist, now heads the Endangered Species Reform Coalition, and for the Republican leadership on the Hill that has made rewriting the Act one of its top priorities this fall, the public remains strongly supportive of the Endangered Species Act and other environmental protections. Recent polls released by Newsweek, Time, ABC, and The Washington Post have found 70 percent to 80 percent of Americans feel the government has not gone far enough to protect the environment. Even a Lutz poll commissioned by Newt Gingrich's office found a 2-to-1 majority favor "doing more to protect the environment" over "cutting regulations."

But for politicians like Pete Wilson of California, who was vying for rightwing and industry support in his ill-fated 1996 race for the Republican Presidential nomination, it was hard to resist trashing endangered "fairy shrimp" or carrying out a little lizard bashing in the name of "regulatory reform."

Last March, during one of California's worst storm seasons in memory, Wilson showed up near the flooding Pajaro River in the central part of the state where he told some forty farmers (and a large press contingent) that as part of his emergency relief effort he was suspending the state's Endangered Species Act for five years and demanding that President Clinton suspend federal Endangered Species Act protections in California.

"Essentially what we want to do is common sense - to allow you to recover," Wilson assured the angry farmers, many of whom were blaming "salamander-kissing" environmentalists for their flooded fields. They claimed that state protection of the three-inch-long Santa Cruz long-toed salamander had prevented the clearing of trees, snags, gravel, sandbars, and debris from the Pajaro River channel, which caused the river to overflow its banks. "We know the Pajaro was sacrificed for the tree huggers and environmentalists," strawberry grower Clint Miller told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The only problem was there were no salamanders on the Pajaro. In 1989, state Fish and Game biologists had conducted a study on the river but didn't find any. A number of state permits had since been granted for clearing the river of vegetation, but local counties had failed to take action prior to March 11 when the river burst a levee, flooding thousands of acres and forcing the evacuation of more than 3,000 mostly poor Latino farmworkers. The Army Corps of Engineers determined that given the amount of rainfall, clearing the river of vegetation probably wouldn't have prevented the flood anyway. Still the tale of the obstructionist lizard and Wilson's attack on the Endangered Species Act became the centerpiece of numerous media stories that went out that day.

"Opponents of the law use all these phony anecdotes as a crutch because the science community won't support their arguments," claims Jim Jontz, who heads up the Endangered Species Coalition. "In the big picture, most people understand this is the best law we have to protect the ecosystems we all depend on."

Just to make sure that point gets across, Endangered Species Act supporters have begun putting out their own "real-people" anecdotes (with contract names and numbers attached).

These include a profile of the "Eagle Days" festival in Sauk-Prairie, Wisconsin, that draws 25,000 tourists every winter to watch bald eagles roost (and contributes up to a million dollars to the local economy) and the story of Linda Peko, whose ovarian cancer was cured by taxol, an extract from the bark of the endangered Pacific yew tree.

They figure that when it gets down to trading media hits, a cancer cure and America's leathered symbol should beat invisible lizards, jumping rats, and slutty owls.

David Helvarg is a television documentary producer and author of "The War Against the Greens" (Sierra Club Books).
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Title Annotation:Endangered Species Act
Author:Helvarg, David
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Nov 1, 1995
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