ENDANGERED SPECIES are not so dangerous as some people think. That is a key point for the Senate to bear in mind as it considers amending the Endangered Species Act. Thanks mainly to the clash between the snail darter and the Tellico Dam, an impression has spread that obscure flora and fauna with no specific, demonstrated worth can be invoked to block virtually any dam, highway or other public-works project anywhere. Thus some lawmakers conclude that economic progress will be menaced unless the law is greatly modified. Some of the act's champions have reinforced that drastic view by using the plight of a particular endangered species to combat projects that they also oppose on other grounds.
The problem should be kept in perspective. The Endangered Species Act does have a roadblocking potential because its language is so absolute. But actual, irreconcilable collisions have been very rare so far. The snail darter clash is exceptional. A more typical case involves the sandhill crane, whose habitat was threatened by a stretch of Interstate 10 of Mississippi. The road is being redesigned. Sen. John Stennis (D-Miss.) and others have complained because accommodating the cranes has delayed the highway and raised its cost perhaps $5 million. To us, however, this is a good example of the creative rethinking that can enable projects and species to coexist.
The law does need to be revised to permit rational public choices where compromises are impossible. But Congress should also encourage the search for alternatives and accomodations. That process would be undermined, in our view, by heavy-handed amendments such as those that Sen. Stennis has proposed. For instance, he would leave final decisions to the agencies sponsoring projects - who usually have a substantial interest in going ahead. And he wants to exempt projects already under way, although those are least likely to reflect growing environmental sensitivities. All in all, there is a far more balance and perceptiveness in the careful review process that Sens. John Culver (D-Iowa) and Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) have devised. Their approach, which we urge the Senate to approve, would not only protect many fragile species against hasty extinction; it would also buttress an important law that is itself somewhat endangered now.