More than 200 academics, advocates and those interested in environmental law packed into UC Davis’ King Hall for an examination of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species Act on its 40th anniversary.
Former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt delivered the keynote address at Friday’s daylong event. He spoke of the Endangered Species Act’s victories, but its potential to fail in the hands of inept leadership.
No surprise considering that the 75-year-old conservationist, who served under former President Bill Clinton for eight years, started his speech with a concession that what he had to say would likely be controversial:
“The blowback has already begun, just from the drafts that have circulated,” he said. “In some quarters, it’s seen as launching an unjustified attack on the oil and gas industry; others that it’s polemic against organizations I once solicited.”
But before getting into any potential condemnations he outlined for the crowd the activities he’s spent time on for the past four years. Most of it has been out of the public eye, as he said, working in South America.
Babbitt explained that his involvement there was in large part because of his appreciation for the beauty of the long-untouched wilderness of the Amazon Basin. There, some indigenous tribes have yet to establish any ties with modern society.
After speaking so fondly of the region, which is one of the world’s most bio-diverse, he came to his concerns: that destructive oil and gas facilities have become more prevalent among the rainforest’s landscape.
He’s spent the last few years advocating for offshore-inland development for the area, which eliminates roads having to be built to these sites. Everything that would enter or leave the facility does so by planes or underground pipelines.
The background he provided tied back into the Endangered Species Act with mention of the uncertain fate of the greater sage grouse. More than 80 percent of the remaining habitat of this bird, of which a majority is in Wyoming, is under threat, according to a report by WildEarth Guardians.
“And that principal threat is the oil and gas industry,” Babbitt said. “There is minimal impact work (the aforementioned offshore–inland development) that is not being used here.”
These industries made efforts to bring their developments into the 21st century in other countries, he added, but have operated as if it’s the 19th century in America. This sentiment he punctuated with, “OK, now I’m getting polemic,” bringing laughter to the auditorium.
Babbitt in part blamed the Fish and Wildlife Service for not doing all it can to regulate habitat decimation from the uncontrolled drilling in places like Wyoming, which has plans for an additional 23,000 wells in the near future, according to the Wyoming Star Tribune.
But he highlighted potential by listing the sage grouse under the agency’s own Endangered Species Act to remedy the situation. Doing so would make additional federal funding available for protecting the bird’s habitat with conservation easements.
He referenced the California condor, gray wolf and the grizzly bear as successes of the safeguarding measures, as each recovered from the brink of extinction thanks to it.
“Probably the most important lesson in the past 40 years has been that most species become endangered through loss of habitat,” Babbitt said.
The sage grouse has already been proposed as a candidate for Endangered Species Act listing, and Fish and Wildlife Service has until 2015 to make a decision on whether or not to do so.
“But there’s a trend emerging in Wyoming: In anticipation of a possible listing, the state has taken a preemptive strategy to protect the interests of private landowners,” he said. “And the Fish and Wildlife Service has had little to say about the plan’s implications since it was established.”
In conclusion, he expressed a desire for the agency to do more than act as bystanders to these political machinations. His suggestion to “restore integrity to the planning process” was for vested leaders to take a more active role in it.
Earlier this year, Babbitt pressed President Barack Obama to set aside an acre of public land for conservation for every acre that is leased for oil and gas development.
Sharon Duggins, an Oakland attorney who has experience with nonprofits committed to ESA work, was one of the many present for the discussion. She offered her perspective on it afterwards:
“He can pretty well describe the politics of trying to get what you need. And I don’t think that should come as a surprise, given his prior work.
“But I was surprised, in terms of the oil and gas context, that he didn’t take it one step further and speak about climate change. He basically said we need a new approach to oil and gas, but didn’t talk about whether we need to be doing it as much as we are to begin with.”
— Reach Brett Johnson at [email protected] or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett.