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Avoid This Trap, Mr. President : Endangered species: The 'God committee' will rule on saving owls vs. cutting timber.

April 07, 1992|DAVID WILCOVE and MICHAEL BEAN | David Wilcove is an ecologist and Michael Bean is an attorney, both with the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington

When a dead snowy owl was found on the roof of the Washington Hilton hotel in the last week in January, the building engineer placed it in a hotel freezer, thinking it would make a fine gift for the Smithsonian. Hotel managers, however, made him remove it for "security reasons." President Bush was due at the hotel, and no one wanted the Secret Service to mistake a frozen owl for a booby trap.

The owl did get to the Smithsonian and the President was safe, but he is in danger of falling into a much more dangerous owlish trap: the temptation to repudiate the Endangered Species Act.

A shrill chorus of loggers, developers and ranchers, not to mention the Interior secretary himself, is lobbying for exactly this: They got the Administration to convene the "God committee," a seldom-invoked provision of the act, to decide whether to grant an exemption to allow federal timber sales in Oregon.

The exemption proceedings, due to conclude April 24, will determine whether the clear-cutting of 4,750 acres of federal forest lands in Oregon, which will push the spotted owl closer to extinction, is in either the nation's or the region's best interest.

Between 1987 and 1991, only 19 of 73,560 projects reviewed by the Fish and Wildlife Service were blocked due to endangered species; and only the owl case went to the "God committee." The current hearings, in fact, mark only the third time that an exemption has been sought for an economic activity in conflict with an endangered species--hardly evidence that the Endangered Species Act is shutting down the engines of economic growth.

Obtaining an exemption is not easy. The "God committee" is made up of Cabinet-level officials and meets only when all other alternatives have been exhausted. But that's just what Congress intended. Few actions are as irreversible as extinguishing another life form.

The Fish and Wildlife Service spends about $50 million a year on saving species--an inadequate amount. It allows the service to act on 675 species now listed as threatened or endangered, but there are 3,000 others awaiting listing. The inspector general of the Interior Department estimates the cost of saving all current and candidate species at $4.6 billion.

That's not an annual cost; it's a one-time amount. If that seems steep, think of it as slightly less than what Americans spent on video games in 1991. As the price to pay for bald eagles, blue whales, whooping cranes, grizzly bears and thousands of other creatures, it strikes us as a very good deal.

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