The Bush administration's plan to protect owls and timber industry workers in the Pacific Northwest offered few specifics, but it did succeed in shifting the burden for finding a solution from federal agencies to Capitol Hill.
The plan addresses one of the nation's most intractable environmental battles by calling for legislative changes to ease job losses associated with saving the northern spotted owl and the ancient forests that are its natural habitat. Yesterday it got a distinctly skeptical reception from lawmakers who accused the administration of trying to duck the issue.
"It's an invitation for handing over the problem . . .so the administration won't have any fingerprints," said Rep. Bruce F. Vento (D-Minn), who oversees forestry issues as the chairman of the House Interior and Insular Affairs subcommittee on national parks and public lands.
"They can blame it on the law, the courts or on Congress . . .They're punting again and they're not facing up to the issue."
The administration's proposal was made in response to an Interior Department decision last week that formally declared the owl a threatened species. The decision theoretically requires federal agencies to take steps to protect the owl, but the White House has balked at enforcing protection plans that would shut down much of the timber harvest on lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Interior's Bureau of Land Management.
As described Tuesday by Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. and Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter, who oversees the Forest Service, the administration's plan seeks to "balance" needs of the spotted owl with needs of the Northwest timber industry. A new interagency task force will draft an interim solution by Sept. 1, but administration officials acknowledge that the shape of a long-term plan remains far from clear.
"We need some time," said Kelly M. Shipp, a spokeswoman for Yeutter. "This is a very complex, sensitive issue, and it basically calls for a creative approach."
Congressional critics noted that the spotted owl decision has been pending for several years, and suggested that the administration is pinning hopes on legislative proposals whose chances are shaky at best. Reaction was particularly strong to the administration's suggestion that Congress tinker with the Endangered Species Act, one of the nation's toughest environmental laws and one that is regularly reauthorized with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Administration officials have raised the possibility of seeking an exemption to the act by convening the so-called "God Squad," a Cabinet-level panel that can overrule protection plans if economic and social costs are deemed too high.
They want Congress to broaden the mandate of the committee so it could consider the entire ancient forest issue.
"I think it's irresponsible in the extreme," said Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries subcommittee which has jurisdiction over the Endangered Species Act. "It promises what it knows perfectly well it can't deliver and in the process does a real disservice to both the communities and the owl."
The administration also proposes that Congress insulate federal agencies from lawsuits by environmentalists in cases where timber harvest plans conflict with federal environmental law.
That would not be without precedent, since Congress last year enacted a similar prohibition on "judicial review" in connection with Northwestern timber sales.
But the appropriations rider was sold as a one-year, emergency stopgap to allow Congress time to work out a broad legislative solution to the ancient forest issue, and many lawmakers are loath to make it a precedent.
"Selectively barring the courts from reviewing the implemention of our laws not only sanctions but encourages their violation," wrote Reps. Don Edwards (D-Calif.) and Robert W. Kastenmeier (D-Wis.), senior members of the House Judiciary Committee.
An exception to the generally critical reviews came from Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.), a key architect of federal timber policy who said through a spokesman that the president's proposal is a "responsible approach."
The spokesman added, however, that Hatfield "is very reluctant to tinker with the Endangered Species Act . . .He's one of the original authors."