WASHINGTON — The cozy practice of “sue and settle” lawsuits between environmentalists and the federal government is making millionaires out of attorneys — but diverting scarce federal dollars intended to protect endangered species, Republican lawmakers say.
The Obama administration has quietly settled lawsuits and set contentious conditions behind closed-doors in the last four years to add 780 plants and animals to the endangered species list.
In addition to the $21 million in legal fees paid to groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and Defenders of Wildlife, the price tag to implement the settlements is expected to cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
Republicans in Congress this week began hearings on the problem they say creates artificial deadlines and dominates the use of scarce budget resources, often to the detriment of creatures protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
“Allowing the fate of species to be increasingly decided by federal bureaucrats, lawyers or federal judges is not working and undercuts the true purpose of ESA,” Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee said Tuesday during the first hearing.
The proposed listing of the sage grouse will affect millions of acres in Colorado — 1.8 million acres on the Western Slope where the government also wants to restrict land use including oil and gas development.
Colorado’s Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky told the panel that $200,000 of local tax dollars has already been spent to address the one-size-fits-all federal plan for the 13 states affected by the grouse listing, and that it does not address the unique topography of Colorado’s Western Slope.
“If the bird were listed it would harm the county economy, we would lose jobs, we would lose tax revenues and royalties as well,” Jankovsky said.
Under questioning by Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), whose congressional district includes the Glenwood Springs area, Jankovsky revealed that the grouse population is so plentiful in his region that more than a half-million have been counted while the state allowed tens of thousands to be taken during hunting seasons.
Even if the recovery goal is met or exceeded, the proposed restrictions on public land as well as 40,000 acres of private property on the Western Slope would not be lifted, Jankovsky said.
“Effectively, what we are doing is, we’re creating a policy where we can’t win even when we win,” Tipton said. The grouse “will not be delisted in Wyoming or in Montana or in portions of Colorado once we’ve actually recovered.”
Democrats accused Republicans of using fear-mongering tactics to further a radicalized agenda to overturn the Endangered Species Act.
“They have a visceral hate of a successful law,” said Rep. Madeleine Z. Bordallo (D-Guam).
Added Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.): “I think what we are hearing today is unproductive.”
A biology professor on the panel who testified at the request of Democrats said court action is required to force the government to follow the law, and that the law is not being enforced because of a lack of funding.
Reed Noss with the University of Central Florida added that human population growth is the greatest threat o declining species.
“It’s not politically correct to talk about the environment and immigration,” Noss said. “Depending on what happens with immigration, (adding) 16 million more people, this will put more pressure on species. It is amazing to me any species have recovered.”
Democrats also argued that the recovery of an endangered species is not an accurate measure of the Endangered Species Act’s success, and that putting millions of acres of land for species habitat off limits to development will not have a negative affect on the economy.
“The ESA does not stop economic activity, it simply guides economic activity towards sectors that are greener and do less harm in their activities,” Noss said.
Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Ok.) said the federal government should only interfere with local species protection efforts when the states fail to do their job, and argued that the states are doing their due diligence.
“The federal government should stay out of our business,” Mullin said.
Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas) is sponsoring legislation that would give landowners and parties affected by the lawsuits a seat at the table when settlements are crafted.
A House Judiciary subcommittee on Wednesday will also hear testimony on the “Sunshine for Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act” that requires federal agencies to make settlements public before filing agreements with the court.