Editorial: Allow time for response to proposed ESA changes

Published Jun 21, 2014 at 12:01AM

The public has been given only 60 days to respond to significant proposed changes in the Endangered Species Act’s definition of critical habitat. It’s not enough.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, and 42 other members of Congress have asked the Obama administration to extend the comment period. They say the changes, released May 12, could have a big economic impact.

“As written, these rules could dramatically increase the amount of private and public lands designated for habitat,” the group wrote, “which in turn could result in blocking or slowing down an array of agricultural, grazing, energy transmission and production, transportation, and other activities on the more than 680 current habitat designations and hundreds more slated to be finalized in the next few years.”

The West is no stranger to the power of the ESA, with timber harvests down more than 90 percent in the last 30 years, due largely to the designation of northern spotted owl habitat under the act. Current concerns about the sage grouse have spurred considerable effort to prevent ESA action that some say could lead to similar losses in ranching, farming and other businesses.

One of the proposed changes would require attention to a species’ “recovery,” not just its “survival.” It involves a new definition of adverse modification, a concept that allows restrictions on a variety of activities. Under the new definition, adverse modification would include any action that would interfere with a listed species ability to recover, not just its ability to survive. Critics say the change would amount to a vast expansion of federal power and could mean far greater restrictions in current and future areas designated as critical habitat.

The letter, written to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Kathryn Sullivan, whose agencies administer the ESA, requests a six-month extension in the comment period to allow all those impacted to study and understand the proposed regulations.

Whatever the conclusion about the regulations themselves, it’s clear the time extension is the right move. The ESA has had enormous impact — for good and bad — and those affected by changes are entitled to the chance to effectively respond before significant alternations are made.