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Interior starts counting off 30-day comment period on Endangered Species act

August 18, 2008 |  7:41 pm


The clock has started ticking down for anyone who wants to comment on the Department of Interior's proposed overhaul of the Endangered Species Act, which could cut out the independent reviews of whether a government decision will affect species in danger of extinction.

The notice was posted in the Federal Register on Friday, giving anyone who wants to weigh in on the changes until Sept. 15.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will accept comments through the eRulemaking portal but won't accept e-mail or faxes.

Independent scientific reviews have been a mainstay of the Endangered Species Act and are meant to provide more input into policy decisions and avoid conflict-of-interest charges that might occur when an agency appears to rubber stamp its own decision.

Interior says the changes are narrow and procedural, but most observers think the agency is looking to circumvent attempts by environmentalists to use the act as a tool to fight projects that contribute to global warming. From the notice:

"We also propose these regulatory
changes in response to new challenges
we face with regard to global warming
and climate change."

There's more than a metaphoric 800-pound bear lurking in the room, though. In May, the polar bear was listed under the Endangered Species Act as "threatened" with extinction because of melting arctic ice -- the first species to get such a designation purely on global-warming grounds.

Public comment periods are often extended on controversial issues. But the federal government's reluctance to accept e-mail comments has itself engendered controversy. Federal officials say they can be inundated with mass mailings from well-organized interest groups. In the past, land management officials have gone so far as to say they give greater consideration individual letters and discount campaign e-mails and letters.

Ultimately, however, the public comment period can just operate as a pro-forma waiting period before the new rule takes effect. As much as public officials say they want to hear from the public about their policies, they often say of their decisions: "It's not a democracy."

-- Julie Cart

Photo: polar bear in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. credit: Subhankar Banerjee / Associated Press