ACTIVISTS and the Clinton administration are scrambling to save from ``extinction'' what they see as the most important environmental law in US history: the Endangered Species Act.
The focus is on Congress, where National Wildlife Federation lobbyist Suzanne Jones says, ``We're in a bad political position.''
``Our champions are running to the middle, the administration is cutting deals right and left, and people who are avowed opponents are now in control ... and they smell blood,'' she told a gathering of activists and environmental lawyers at the University of Oregon earlier this week.
The recently formed Senate Republican Regulatory Relief Task Force has put the Endangered Species Act (ESA) at the top of its ``Top Ten Worst-Case Regulations.''
``Amendments are needed to restore the constitutional protection of private propery rights that for too long have been ignored by Congress and Washington rule makers,'' says Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas, co-chair of the task force.
On March 7, the Senate began hearings on bills that would halt new listings of plants and animals under the act. Proposals being pushed by Republicans and some Democrats also would stop new designations of ``critical habitat'' and end the requirement that federal agencies consult with the US Fish and Wildlife Service regarding endangered species.
Beyond the overt attempts to revamp the ESA, critics are attacking it through broader regulatory and budget-cutting means as well. Rescissions in the 1995 budget passed by the House include cuts in the Fish and Wildlife Service's endangered-species budget. And GOP ``Contract With America'' items on private-property rights and cost-benefit analysis of federal law, which passed in the House last week, are of particular concern to activists.
``If the act isn't gutted in the reauthorization process, it'll certainly be gutted by the `Contract' if that passes the Senate,'' warns Tim Eichenberg of the Center for Marine Conservation.
``Environmental laws are caught in the cross hairs with the Endangered Species Act right at the center,'' says Ms. Jones of the National Wildlife Federation.
In response, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has launched a series of preemptive strikes at opponents of a law he once told the Monitor is ``transcendent, overarching ... encompassing all types of land use and development issues.''
Agreements with corporate landowners to protect endangered species in North Carolina, California, and Montana were announced last week. These are meant to illustrate what Mr. Babbitt says is the flexibility of a law opponents call rigid and Draconian.
This week, Babbitt and Commerce Department undersecretary D. James Baker announced measures they said ``would bring significant change to the way the Endangered Species Act is implemented.''
These include exemptions for single-home residential tracts and other property parcels of less than five acres. Those who petition the government to list species (often environmentalists) would have a greater burden of proof that such listings are necessary. States would have more authority in listing decisions and recovery plans, under the new administration plan, and there would be ``greater scrutiny of the scientific analysis supporting endangered species decisions.''
``Small landowners would encounter more flexibility and less regulation,'' said Dr. Baker, who oversees endangered species in the oceans. ``And all landowners would be encouraged to provide good habitat for listed species and not be penalized for doing so.''
The administration's move was hailed by Govs. John Kitzhaber of Oregon, Mike Lowry of Washington, and Roy Romer of Colorado - all Democrats.
John Sawhill, president of the Nature Conservancy, applauded the initiative. But other environmentalists see it as a mixed blessing at best. The Environmental Defense Fund acknowledged ``a number of positive steps'' in what the administration is calling its ``guideposts for reform'' of the Endangered Species Act.
But EDF also wants more financial incentives for landowners to preserve habitat, including estate and other tax relief and new conservation trust funds to purchase easements. ``The failure to include any such ideas in the package of proposals ... is a missed opportunity,'' said Michael Bean, head of the group's wildlife program.
Others are less charitable. ``When the Clinton administration came in we thought we had it made, but it didn't turn out that way,'' said Jim Baca, who was fired from his job as director of the US Bureau of Land Management for being too confrontational with ranchers and miners.
Meanwhile, all of this has put professional government scientists working on endangered species (``combat biologists,'' many call themselves) directly in the sights of lay critics as well as politicians. Says Alison Beck Haas, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bald eagle specialist in Idaho, ``I'm so tired of having onion farmers question my biology!''