Bush pushes the Endangered Species Act towards extinction

It’s tempting, at times, to dismiss President Bush as a simpleton. His aw-shucks speechifying and constant malapropisms don’t suggest much depth of intellect; before Bush won the presidency, even Republicans tended to dismiss him as a bonehead. But while George is certainly no intellectual colossus, after eight years in office his defining trait is less simplicity of mind than simplicity of world-view: For the President, there are no shades of grey, but only black and white, right and wrong, good and evil.

While that Manichean outlook may anger Bush’s opponents, it lends the President both single-mindedness and an unshakeable conviction that the ends justify the means. That allows Bush to slice through - or simply ignore - Gordian knots that would hobble a more subtle leader. A case in point: this week, in a single fell swoop, the White House rolled back 35 years of environmental conservation, announcing new rules that will eviscerate the Endangered Species Act. From now on, federal agencies will no longer have to consult with government scientists about new projects' potential impact on vulnerable species; instead, they will be able to decide for themselves - based on little or no real evidence - whether developments ranging from new highways to dams and mines are likely to cause any harm.


In effectively scrapping the scientific review processes that have until now formed the backbone of the Act, Bush has used his presidential powers to unilaterally force through changes that conservative Republicans have long craved. As recently as 2005, right-wingers sought to push similar changes through Congress; the efforts eventually became deadlocked in the Senate, thanks in part to outraged protests by environmental activists. Most presidents would be wary of getting tangled up in that sort of debate; for Bush, however, there was no discussion to be had, but merely a goal to be achieved. Why waste time talking when you can simply steamroller your opponents? 
That same distaste for compromise has led the President to seek to cement his legacy not by forging a lasting consensus, but rather by making it difficult for his successors to reverse his decisions. Instead of pushing through his endangered-species reforms with an easily-overturned executive order, Bush took pains to introduce the overhaul through new federal regulations; that makes it harder for environmental groups to challenge the changes in court, although they’ll certainly try, and will also make it substantially more difficult for Bush’s successor to reverse the move.


This is the real threat posed by the Bush presidency: In order to undo the environmental ills that Bush hath wrought, it’ll take a similarly determined and single-minded approach from his successor. With McCain already abandoning his green roots and Obama showing a professorial taste for nuance and compromise, it’s likely the Bush presidency will continue to cast a shadow over the environmental movement for many years to come.

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Anyone who is unclear why defending the right of the public to participate in government decisions about the environment is important, or the specifics of what a good process looks like in different countries, is invited to check out a new publication from the World Resources Institute called “Voice and Choice: Opening the Door to Environmental Democracy.” It’s available for free download here:


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