Sunday, August 30, 2009

Obama and the Environment at Seven Months

This week Mongabay featured an editorial outlining several areas where the Obama administration has fallen short on environmental issues. Seven months into a presidency is probably too soon for a full evaluation. However, there have been a few disturbing trends. For this blog, the most relevant area is biodiversity.

Of course, wolves are just one of hundreds—or more likely thousands—of endangered species in the United States. The Obama administration started out swinging when it overthrew a Bush administration decision that would have gutted vital aspects of the Endangered Species Act, but since then it has moved forward slowly on protecting species.

Just yesterday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated that twenty-nine species will go on to be considered for protection under the ESA. So, while they are not covered yet, they have made it to the next round. Yet at the same time, it was announced that nine species were dropped from consideration, such as the Ashy Storm-petrel, a sea bird off the West Coast which has already been classified by the IUCN as Endangered. To add to the frustration, in February the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service turned down protections for a staggering 169 species.

While just considering protecting species under the ESA is a big change from the prior administration, which diluted and ignored the ESA whenever it could, species reviews are backed up and environmentalists are saying they are already unhappy with Ken Salazar's decision-making regarding endangered species. Even if all 29 species now being considered become protected that's only a little more than 7 percent of the original species proposed.

The world is in the midst of a biodiversity crisis—and maybe even a mass extinction—and the United States is no exception. If the world's wealthiest, most powerful nation chooses not to save its dwindling biodiversity what hope is there elsewhere?
Salazar's handling of the Endangered Species Act is hardly the only issue mentioned in the editorial that bears on biodiversity. The practice of mountaintop removal mining destroys important forest habitat even as it poisons waterways, yet the EPA continues to approve permits. Clearcutting broad swaths of national forests likewise puts additional pressure on forest specialists. Even alternative energy can have negative impacts on biodiversity – ethanol especially but also large solar and wind arrays, if not sited and managed properly.