WASHINGTON — Reversing a last-minute Bush administration rule change, President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he'd require federal agencies to consult with government wildlife experts about whether new government projects such as highways or dams would harm endangered or threatened species.
The Bush administration said in December that federal agencies could decide on their own whether their projects could go ahead, without seeking the expert advice on potential damage to threatened or endangered species. The change eliminated the need for mandatory consultations with federal wildlife experts and for winning their agreement about the federal projects.
Some Interior Department officials opposed the Bush rule change, and environmental groups denounced it, saying that it would destroy the checks and balances system that had helped the federal government save hundreds of species from extinction under the Endangered Species Act.
Obama announced that he'd signed a memorandum undoing the Bush rule during a visit to the Department of Interior to mark its 160th anniversary. Interior employees cheered loudly. He said that his action would "help restore the scientific process to its rightful place at the heart of the Endangered Species Act."
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"The work of scientists and experts in my administration — including right here in the Interior Department — will be respected," the president said. "For more than three decades, the Endangered Species Act has successfully protected our nation's most threatened wildlife, and we should be looking for ways to improve it, not weaken it."
The Bush administration changed the rule in time for it to take effect before Obama took office, meaning that the new president couldn't simply throw it out. Obama called on federal officials to start a new process in order to rewrite the rule to restore scientific consultation. That process typically includes at least 60 days for public comment.
Obama asked that the heads of federal agencies go back to the system of getting advice and concurrence from the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service until the new rule is completed.
Business groups criticized the move, predicting that it would slow the review process for projects, including those funded by the just-enacted economic stimulus.
Environmental groups, however, welcomed the action.
"We're heartened that President Obama intends to return wildlife biologists to their rightful role in determining protections for America's plants and animals," said Susan Holmes of Earthjustice, an environmental law firm.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, a former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement that the agency's employees were the " 'keepers of the flame' for imperiled plants and animals."
"By restoring the requirement for federal agencies to get agreement from federal wildlife experts on the effects of their projects, President Obama has begun the process of returning oversight and accountability under the Endangered Species Act," said Clark, who's now a vice president of the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife.
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