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Public Policy Report for 18 August 2008

Bush Administration Proposes Endangered Species Act Rule Change

In what Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) calls "another in a continuing stream of proposals to repeal our landmark environmental laws through the back door," the Bush Administration has proposed a regulatory overhaul of the Endangered Species Act. The proposed rule change would allow federal agencies to forgo consultations with federal biologists on actions like water permits and energy development plans used to determine if an action would be harmful to a species.

The proposed rule, published in the Federal Register on 15 August 2008 by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) seeks to ease regulations for construction and transportation interests. Proponents of the new rule assert that it would streamline the federal permit review process. However, congressional Democrats and environmentalists are concerned by a plan that would authorize skipping consultation with USFWS and NMFS scientists.

Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV), chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement, "I am deeply troubled by this proposed rule, which gives federal agencies an unacceptable degree of discretion to decide whether or not to comply with the Endangered Species Act. The administration is also attempting to adopt a new consultation process with very little time for the public to even be consulted. Eleventh-hour rulemakings rarely, if ever, leads to good government -- this is not the type of legacy this Interior Department should be leaving for future generations."

There is still some time for biologists to provide comments on the draft rule. Comments are being accepted until 15 September 2008. The formal request for comment was published in the 15 August 2008 Federal Register.

Scientists familiar with conservation policy should consider submitting comments.To submit comments in response to this proposed rule change, please visit http://www.regulations.gov/fdmspublic/component/main?main=SubmitComment&o=09000064806c5826

The following is an excerpt from the official notice:

The Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended ("Act''; 16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.) provides that the Secretaries of the Interior and Commerce (the ``Secretaries'') share responsibilities for implementing most of the provisions of the Act. Generally, marine species are under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of Commerce and all other species are under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Interior. Authority to administer the Act has been delegated by the Secretary of the Interior to the Director of the FWS and by the Secretary of Commerce through the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the Assistant Administrator for NMFS.

There have been no comprehensive amendments to the Act since 1988. With the exception of two section 7 counterpart regulations for specific types of consultations, there have been no comprehensive revisions to the implementing section 7 regulations since 1986. Since those regulations were issued, much has happened: The Services have gained considerable experience in implementing the Act, as have other Federal agencies, States, and property owners; there have been many judicial decisions regarding almost every aspect of section 7 of the Act and its implementing regulations; and the Government Accountability Office has completed reviews of section 7 implementation.

We also propose these regulatory changes in response to new challenges we face with regard to global warming and climate change. On May 15, 2008, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne announced that he would propose common sense modifications to the section 7 regulations to provide greater clarity and certainty to the consultation process. Particularly as we are confronted with new and more complex issues, it is important that we have a section 7 consultation process that clearly sets out key definitions and the applicability of that process. As we negotiate the complexities of consultations in the 21st century, we need to have a regulatory framework that supplies guidance to shape those consultations as envisioned by the Act.

A 2004 GAO report on interagency collaboration during section 7 consultations found that although the Services had made improvements to the consultation process, it remained contentious between the Services and action agencies. In particular, the GAO found that action agencies continued to consider the consultation process burdensome. The GAO concluded that, given the unique requirements and circumstances of different species, a "healthy dose of professional judgment'' from the Services would always be required, meaning there would always be some disagreements. Nevertheless, the GAO also concluded that the process could still be improved, and specifically recommended that the Services and other Federal agencies "resolve disagreements about when consultation is needed."

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California: Science Wins Latest Evolution Education Battle

According to a recent report from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), the University of California (UC) has prevailed in a multi-year court case brought against the UC system by the Association for Christian Schools International, the Calvary Chapel Christian School in Murrieta, California, and a handful of students at the school. At issue in the case was a claim by the plaintiffs that UC had violated the constitutional rights of applicants from Christian schools whose high school coursework is deemed inadequate preparation for college. In short, according to the NCSE, the plaintiff's objected to the UC system policy of rejecting high school biology courses that use textbooks published by Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Books as "inconsistent with the viewpoints and knowledge generally accepted in the scientific community."

Earlier this year Federal Judge S. James Otero issued a ruling on a portion of the suit. In that decision, Otero ruled in favor of the UC system's motion for partial summary judgment. That decision established the constitutionality of the university's policies for evaluating applicant credentials. On 8 August, the court ruled on the balance of the case. In the August decision, Otero granted the UC system's motion for "summary judgment" on the university's claim that it properly applied its policies - ruled constitutional by Otero's prior decision.

For more extensive coverage of this latest victory for science education, please visit the National Center for Science Education at www.ncseonline.org.

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Now in BioScience: "A New Farm Bill, Research Strucure at USDA"

In the Washington Watch article in the July/August 2008 issue of the BioScience, AIBS senior public policy associate Megan Debranski Kelhart explores the new research framework at the United States Department of Agriculture.

An excerpt from the article follows:

The significant challenges facing national food, fiber, and bioenergy systems call for a robust agricultural research system, whether for addressing food safety, security, and availability; thwarting disruptions to food supplies; or managing agricultural and natural resource systems. The federal framework supporting the agricultural research infrastructure was recently changed in an effort to meet those challenges.

The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (also known simply as the Farm Bill, or PL 110-234) is a more than $300 billion response to the range of issues concerning agricultural systems, including research. The new law aims to streamline and boost funding to "ensure the technological superiority of American agriculture," according to the USDA Research, Education, and Economics Task Force appointed by the secretary of agriculture in 2003 at the request of Congress.

To continue reading this article for free, please go to http://www.aibs.org/washington-watch/.

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Now In the AIBS Webstore: "Communicating Science: A Primer for Working with the Media"

Evolution, climate change, stem cell research -- Scientists are frequently called upon to provide expert information on hot button issues that pervade the daily news headlines, yet most find themselves woefully unprepared for the bright lights of the television studio or leading questions from a newspaper journalist. A new publication from AIBS, "Communicating Science: A Primer for Working with the Media," by Holly Menninger and Robert Gropp in the Public Policy Office, will prepare scientists for successful and effective media interviews.

Recognizing that many scientists are reluctant to engage in media outreach, "Communicating Science" outlines compelling reasons for scientists to interact with the media and describes key differences between journalism and science that may not be apparent to practicing scientists. Step-by-step, Menninger and Gropp walk scientists through the entire interview process - from appropriate questions to ask when a reporter calls to practical advice for looking and sounding one's best on-air or on-camera.

The information and advice in "Communicating Science" is presented in eight easy-to-read chapters that provide vital information for scientists new to media outreach, as well as a quick refresher for seasoned experts - an ideal text for a graduate course on science communication or a professional development course for students and faculty. The primer's authors speak from their own experiences as PhD scientists in the biological sciences with years of experience in media outreach.

The concise, user-friendly volume has several unique features that set it apart from other media guides for scientists. "Communicating Science" includes first-person interviews with nearly a dozen scientists who have successfully navigated print, radio, and television interviews. The scientists-including the "Island Snake Lady," Kristin Stanford, recently featured on the Discovery Channel show, "Dirty Jobs" - share advice and experiences on a number of topics, including safely speaking on behalf of an organization, avoiding trouble when discussing socially or politically controversial topics, and reflections on first interviews.

"Communicating Science" also provides worksheets to assist readers with interview preparation: building a message framework with talking points and transition phrases, developing analogies, and using illustrative props or images. It includes pages for readers to organize contact information of journalists with whom they have worked directly and those who have reported on stories related to their own research to keep as potential contacts for future story pitches.

"Communicating Science: A Primer for Working with the Media" is available now in the AIBS Webstore.

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