High Court Limits Endangered Species Act

The U.S. Supreme Court sides with developers and the Bush administration on a ruling that reduces the power of the federal Endangered Species Act. States will have greater latitude in issuing building permits and will operate with fewer federal requirements aimed at protecting endangered species.

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In another decision, the Supreme Court sided with developers and the Bush administration. It limited the scope of one of the nation's major environmental laws - the Endangered Species Act.

NPR's John Nielsen has more.

JOHN NIELSEN: This is a case that involves a collision between two of the nation's most powerful environmental laws. One is the Endangered Species Act, which forces federal agencies to consult with endangered species experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before issuing controversial development plans.

The other federal law is the Clean Water Act. It allows the environmental protection agency to turn over the power to grant water permits to states, like Arizona, which is a good idea in principle, according to Bob Irwin of Defenders of Wildlife. Unfortunately...

Mr. BOB IRWIN (Defenders of Wildlife): The state of Arizona will issue a permit and the state of Arizona is not under an obligation to consult under the Endangered Species Act before issuing those permits.

NIELSEN: Dozens of states have already been granted this power. Some have agreed to take special steps to protect endangered species. But the Bush administration added no such requirements when it unveiled a plan to give the state of Arizona these powers five years ago.

EPA lawyers said the Clean Air Act did not allow them to attach legal strings. And now the high court has agreed. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito argued that in this case the Clean Water Act trumps the Endangered Species Act. Irwin of Defenders of Wildlife called it a ruling that would produce more sprawl and more environmental problems.

Mr. IRWIN: We're very concerned that today's decision, coupled with the Bush administration's hostility to endangered species protection, could lead to additional species extinction.

NIELSEN: But businessmen like Dwayne Desiderio of the National Association of Home Builders say talk like that is overblown. First, he says, state and local laws protect endangered species. Also, the feds can jump in later in the process if they feel the species is at risk. In short...

Mr. DWAYNE DESIDERIO (National Association of Homebuilders): We think the court got the right decision. We think it had a difficult issue before us but it resolved it in a way that does justice to both the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and in a manner that allows our members to house the nation's citizens.

NIELSEN: While this case was in the courts, the EPA unveiled a plan to do for Alaska what it had just done for Arizona - grant it the power to issue water use permits with no endangered species strings attached.

John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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