ASHLAND, ORE. — IF you want to get the juices flowing on all sides of an environmental question, say the words ``Endangered Species Act.''
The landmark 1973 legislation providing for protection of plants and animals headed for extinction is not only potentially the most powerful environmental law in the United States but also the most controversial, especially when species like the spotted owl get in the way of jobs or the rights of private property owners.
To remove some of this controversy, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt this week announced changes in the way the Endangered Species Act will be administered.
The general purpose of the new policy, announced Tuesday and presented on Capitol Hill by Mr. Babbitt yesterday, is to give affected parties, government agencies, independent scientists, and the public a greater say in deciding whether species should be listed as ``endangered'' or ``threatened'' and also in the recovery plans called for under the act.
``These changes reflect the growing recognition that we must act more effectively to preserve this country's endangered species, but we must do it in a way that involves all Americans who have a stake in the outcome,'' Babbitt said.
Among the changes: independent scientific peer review of listing and recovery decisions; inclusion of local interests on recovery teams to minimize any social and economic effects; letting landowners know exactly what they can do as soon as a species is listed; a greater role for state agencies; and closer cooperation among federal agencies.
Babbitt also stressed, in line with his earlier calls for ``ecosystem management,'' a new emphasis on addressing all endangered species within an ecosystem. ``By looking at the big picture, by focusing our resources and efforts on ecosystems rather than individual species, we can get away from crisis management where our choices are limited and our costs are high,'' said Mollie Beattie, director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Reaction to the new policy was mixed.
John Rasor, vice president of the Georgia Pacific Corporation, a large timber company whose operations have been impacted by endangered species decisions, applauded Babbitt. So did the National Association of Homebuilders and the American Forest and Paper Association.
But Rob Gordon, executive director of the National Wilderness Institute (a nonprofit group that promotes ``common sense environmental policies'' and has been highly critical of the Endangered Species Act) called Babbitt's announcement ``an attempt to head off any substantive legislative reforms.'' Earlier this year, the institute reported that the cost of the 306 recovery plans written since the act was passed 21 years ago totaled nearly $900 million - not including the much higher potential costs to the private sector. ``The federal endangered species program is out of control,'' the report stated.
There also are questions about the effectiveness of the law. A recent study of the act by the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis notes that just four of the more than 1,300 listed species have been delisted because of recovery. (Three of those are birds on the western Pacific islands of Belau.)
BUT environmentalists counter that many well-known species - the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, the black-footed ferret, the American alligator - might have gone extinct without the law. Yesterday officials announced the California gray whale had recovered enough to be taken off the endangered list.
``If you look at the trends in the world, clearly we are losing species,'' said Laurie Macdonald, a wildlife zoologist and Sierra Club volunteer who chairs that organization's biodiversity and endangered species campaign. ``We are undergoing an excessive loss of the Earth's genetic resources and genetic wealth, so this act is very important.''
Environmentalists are pleased with the multispecies approach, with the push for interagency cooperation at the federal level, and also with a greater role for state agencies.
But other parts of Babbitt's plan make them nervous. When it is announced that ``the composition of recovery planning teams will be expanded beyond the scientific community to include other areas of expertise,'' Ms. Macdonald says, ``I'm worried that what they're saying here is that they'll put special interests into it when what we need are broad thinkers, long-term thinkers.''
Peer review of listing decisions and recovery plans can be a good idea, she says, but it can also be a burdensome delaying tactic. And when government officials say an endangered-species decision ``must be made on the best available scientific and commercial information,'' Macdonald asks: ``Does this mean that the market prices in June of 1994 are going to dictate what we do about prevention of extinction of species?''
While the Endangered Species Act is up for reauthorization, Congress is not likely to pass a bill this year.