August 23, 2008
By Laura Tillman
MISSION - National representatives of the Sierra Club warned on Friday that the Bush administration's proposed relaxation of the Endangered Species Act could lead to an ongoing disregard of environmental laws, with results echoing construction of the U.S.-Mexico border fence.
Under the new provisions, federal agencies would have the authority to independently determine whether construction projects will impact endangered species, advocates warn.
Previously required scientific evaluations would be reduced, and climate change would be wholly excluded from environmental considerations, advocates warn.
On Friday, after spotting the rare Mexican bluewing and Malachite butterflies in the North American Butterfly Association Park, Sierra Club members visited a border fence construction site near Donna, where bulldozers unearthed vegetation and replaced shrubs with metal girders. The construction illustrated their concerns.
"In the past, environmental laws have enabled us to work out compromises (with federal authorities)," said Jim Chapman, chairman of the Sierra Club's Lower Rio Grande Valley Chapter.
In 1999, the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against Immigration and Naturalization Services when 49 miles of floodlights were planned along the Rio Grande.
Environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act provided leverage for the group's argument, and a compromise was reached to exclude sensitive habitats from the path of the lights.
"What's happening now is unprecedented, because the laws no longer apply," Chapman said. "Even the Reagan administration, who were no friends of the environment, didn't try to dismantle 100 years of environmental protection."
In March, the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife filed a petition with the Supreme Court, arguing that the Real ID Act is unconstitutional. The Act allows the Department of Homeland Security director to waive laws in the interest of national security.
The Supreme Court rejected the petition without comment.
According to the Sierra Club, the Rio Grande Valley is home to the third largest number of endangered species in the country, with 21 species federally listed as threatened or endangered.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has invested more than $90 million in creating a wildlife corridor for endangered animals, such as the wild ocelot, of which less that 100 remain in the nation.
Members of the Sierra Club said opposing the border fence has galvanized them and that each setback has made them more determined.
Still, as they stood next to the construction office in Donna, Lone Star Chapter Conservation Director Cyrus Reed said few options remained.
"We've tried legal strategies, we've tried political strategies," Reed said. "Neither political party wants to look at this issue."
Frontera Audubon Director Wayne Bartholomew said he isn't surprised that conservation regulations have been pushed aside.
"Environmental issues are easily dismissed - but the constitutional aspect is not," Bartholomew said. "You can look at the case of the Valley as a new effort by the Bush administration to waive laws to achieve an end."