Wildlife: For Me? You Shouldn't Have.

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, January 1998

Wildlife: For Me? You Shouldn't Have.

A Republican from Idaho says he has a gift for our endangered species. Which raises the question, What's the catch?
By Allan Freedman

Drop and Give Me Your Stomach Lining

On what was arguably the most grueling day in Hawaii Ironman history, one thing was clear: The Kona race gods were not smiling. Temperatures on the lava fields of up to 115 degrees were compounded by 60-mile-per-hour headwinds, resulting in 114 dropouts and a flurry of dramatic hands-and-knees finishes. Among the victims of last October's race was a dangerously parched Paula Newby-Fraser, who called it quits midway through the running leg. "With conditions like that, dropping out was the smartest thing I could have done," says the 35-year-old eight-time champion. "I just couldn't face the death march." A fate that fourth-place finisher Wendy Ingraham and fifth-place Sian Welch — both of whom crawled the last 50 yards — weren't able to avoid. Less fortunate still was Australian Chris Legh, a top male contender whose epic 400-yard body drag was cut short by alarmed race medics and who later that day underwent an emergency appendectomy. Of course, the day did have its glory for a select few, most notably first-time winners Heather Fuhr of Canada and Thomas Hellriegel of Germany, who, it should be noted, crossed the finish fully upright.

Giant Apes? Not in My Backyard!
"We've got to ask the old question, 'What does a 300-pound gorilla get?'" exclaims anti-anthropoid crusader John Tucker. "Anything he wants!" As legal counsel for Concerned Citizens Against Gorilla Haven, Tucker's prediction for the fate of rural north Georgia's Fannin County isn't pretty: diseased King Kongs staging improbable breakouts and mauling tourists. The anxiety stems from Gorilla Haven, the world's first halfway house for genetically redundant, infirm, or ill-mannered apes, currently being planned by Chicago philanthropists Jane and Steuart Dewar. Not surprisingly, the proposed facility faces a few hurdles — beginning this month with a vote by county commissioners on the legality of housing what 1,000 petitioners claim are "inherently dangerous" animals. The Dewars, meanwhile, are baffled by the uproar. "These fears are coming out of left field," insists Jane, noting that the compound will be surrounded by 12-foot-high concrete walls, electric fencing, motion sensors, and alarms. "There's no way in hell someone randomly walking along is going to bump into a gorilla."

Gas-Guzzling for the In-Crowd

Lest you worry that the masterminds of X Games cool are targeting an alternative audience of beefy Wisconsinites in red flannel, spokesman Dean Stoyer can promise you this: "We're not adding ice fishing any time soon." Still, the inclusion of a new sport in the second annual made-for-cable-junkies event on the 15th of this month is anything but reassuring. Dubbed "Snowmobile Snocross," the competition pits high-revving handlebar jockeys on a half-mile, jump- and berm-studded race oval. "These guys are catching 20 feet of air," gushes Stoyer. "That's extreme!" But does it fit with the event's Gen X ethos? "It's cutting edge, it's performed on ice and snow, and it looks great on TV," contends Stoyer. "That's our only criteria."

It has become so familiar, you feel tempted to call it the stuffed shirt who cried wolf (or owl, or panther, or grizzly, as the case may be): Every year, some Washington politician professes his intent to revamp the 1973 Endangered Species Act, an important yet outdated piece of legislation attacked both by conservatives, who argue that the Act is too restrictive and harms big business and small landowners alike, and by environmentalists, who claim that it doesn't spread the umbrella of protection far enough over the nation's imperiled flora and fauna. Still, the result is always the same: No new legislation emerges from the halls of Congress.

Things now, however, look to be different. The reason: Dirk Kempthorne, a Republican senator from Idaho who seems to be holding together an impressive coalition in support of his recently proposed Endangered Species Act rewrite. Backers of his plan include members of the factions needed to turn the bill into law — influential Republicans (most notably Environment and Public Works Committee chairman John H. Chafee of Rhode Island), key Senate Democrats, and even members of the Clinton administration. With such a weighty coalition in place, the matter has catapulted to the top of the congressional agenda; last fall the so-called Kempthorne bill was approved by Chafee's committee, and it may come to the Senate floor as early as this month.

The proposal, says Kempthorne, would provide greater incentives for landowners to protect species by legalizing private habitat-conservation programs, reduce bureaucratic red tape by streamlining burdensome agency reviews, and strengthen recovery plans for such species as the whooping crane, the Mexican spotted owl, and the Florida panther. But though the bill has support from moderates on both sides of the congressional aisle, among environmentalists the legislation is decidedly less popular. In its concessions to landowners, they argue, too much long-term protection of species has been sacrificed. "The Kempthorne bill is a giant Ginsu knife," says Heather Weiner, an attorney with the Earthjustice (formerly Sierra Club) Legal Defense Fund, "slicing and dicing its way through the safety net of the ESA." One particularly controversial provision, for instance, would in many cases allow federal agencies such as the Forest Service to be excused from having their actions reviewed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which administers the endangered-species program. "That's like asking Jack Kevorkian to serve on a commission to discuss doctor-assisted suicide," argues Peter Galvin of the Tucson-based Southwest Center for Biological Diversity. "It's a clear conflict of interest, because you're asking the agencies to police themselves." Then there is the notorious "no surprises" clause, which essentially states that once a landowner is granted a permit to develop his property, the decision is not subject to review for a period of 100 years. Finally, many environmentalists also point out that the legislation just plain ignores many imperiled species. "Kempthorne's bill will do nothing to recover the chinook salmon in the Pacific Northwest, the grizzly bear in Montana, or the hundreds of endangered birds and plants in Hawaii," says Weiner.

Oddly enough, at the other end of the spectrum, the proposal is equally unpopular with members of the so-called Wise Use movement, who say that the bill, in failing to include provisions that would provide monetary compensation to those whose ability to develop their property is restricted under the Act, doesn't do enough to protect landowners. And it has also gotten a cool reception from many conservatives in Congress. "That is really the bottom line," says Alaska's Don Young, chairman of the House Committee on Resources, of the absence of such property-rights provisions. "And I'm not going to promote any bill that doesn't deal with the bottom line."

Still, both sides face a tough adversary in Kempthorne, who in the five years that he's occupied his seat has burnished a reputation as one of the Senate's most effective deal-makers. According to Washington insiders, what makes Kempthorne such a force is his ability to build consensus among opposing constituencies. "Dirk has a tremendous capability to bring folks together," says Larry Craig, the senior senator from Idaho. "And he'll literally work nonstop to get things done." Tellingly, in pushing his endangered-species bill, Kempthorne has steered clear of the kind of fiery pronouncements that sent the Republicans into political turmoil during the party's fizzled revolution in 1995, instead selling the bill as a pragmatic, middle-of-the-road alternative. "I must have crafted something that's pretty well balanced," he says, all but bubbling over with pride, "because I'm now in the crosshairs between the two extremes — both saying that this bill is bad."

Weiner, however, claims this balance is an illusion. She warns that Kempthorne is merely wrapping his brown legislation in green rhetoric, co-opting many of the most potent themes used by environmentalists by tossing out catch phrases such as "habitat protection" and "species recovery." "Kempthorne's ability to camouflage himself is very dangerous," she declares. "He's a wolf in sheep's clothing who has taken up our mantra and made it his own."

Even though she admits that she's facing an uphill battle, Weiner and her ilk are looking forward to at least one small bit of redemption: The man she regards as perhaps her most lethal congressional foe is pulling himself from the war. The senator has recently announced that he'll be leaving Washington at the end of '98 to run for governor. But by then, of course, the damage likely will have been done. "We're playing a dangerous game here with the Kempthorne bill," says Bill Snape, legal director of Defenders of Wildlife. "It's like Chinese water torture — a very gradual but consistent weakening of the ESA."

Photograph by Chris Hartlove; illustration by Ward Sutton

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