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Endangering species

ALTHOUGH THE South was victimized by two devastating hurricanes this year, it was also the site of a heartening natural event: the discovery that the rare ivory-billed woodpecker is not extinct after all. There will be fewer such hair's-breadth escapes from extinction, though, if Congress passes pending legislation that would gut the Endangered Species Act.

The law has been a bulwark of environmental protection since it was enacted in 1973 with unanimous approval from the Senate and just five opposing votes in the House. Without it, the grizzly bear, the American alligator, the Florida panther, the bald eagle, and the peregrine falcon would likely no longer exist in the lower 48 states. To increase the lamentably short roster of saved species, Congress should be working to strengthen the law, not weaken it.

Legislation in the House, which could be acted on as soon as today, strikes at the existing law's core by greatly limiting the designation of critical habitat land. Under the bill, that designation would go only to areas that are necessary to save a species from imminent extinction but not to areas needed for its long-time recovery, a goal of the current law. Congressman Martin Meehan of Lowell, a critic of the bill, believes that the change would create small, isolated habitat ''islands" that could not lead to species survival.

Meehan is especially critical of a provision of the bill that would create the dangerous precedent of government payments for compliance with an environmental law. The federal government would be required under the bill to compensate property owners who claim they have had to forgo profitable uses of their land because of restrictions under the Endangered Species Act. Meehan has proposed amendments correcting this provision and another one in the bill that would limit officials' use of scientific modeling and data in the enforcement of the law.

Finally, the bill would not only allow federal agencies to ignore the goal of species protection but in some cases would actually require them to do so if the agencies conclude that compliance would get in the way of their mission. Congress has already granted such an exemption to the Defense Department, even though the Government Accountability Office found that compliance with the species law has not hindered military readiness. The bill's much broader exemption would open great expanses of federal land to activities -- from oil-drilling to cattle-grazing -- that could doom threatened or endangered species. At a time when the country should be fostering biodiversity, this bill would undermine it. With a nod to the ivory-billed woodpecker, the House should reject the measure.

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