President Bush's endeavor to give landowners, corporations, local governments, nonprofits and others more say in the management of natural resources has environmentalists and their allies nervous.
"We're concerned this will hurt the gains we've made in the last 30 years of environmental law," says Gary L. Graham, executive director of Audubon Colorado.
Such concerns arose last week as Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, a former timber industry lobbyist, came to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs as part of a 24-city national listening tour to solicit suggestions on the president's nebulously dubbed "cooperative conservation" effort.
The term "cooperative conservation" is taken from an Aug. 26, 2004, executive order signed by Bush. It asks federal agencies to work closer with states, local and tribal governments, corporations, nonprofits and individuals in crafting agreements to protect natural resources.
However, the order, implemented independent of congressional action, doesn't specifically spell out what those agencies should do. Rather, it guides entities like the U.S. Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency to respect the "interests of persons with ownership or other legally recognized interests in land and other natural resources."
Gun rights activists, farmers and ranchers, four-wheeling groups and oil and natural gas representatives poured into a large campus conference room to praise the initiative.
Many of them said government agencies too often stand in the way of their interests, citing a variety of reasons, including petty personality conflicts and officials' incompetence.
Rey, sitting at a table aside Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Julie Jacobson, listened quietly during the session, taking notes.
Greg Schnacke, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said "endless litigation" over environmental issues has hampered his industry's growth. Forested areas that currently ban vehicles should be opened for road construction so that oil and gas reserves can be extracted.
"We need your help to get to it," he said.
J.D. Wright, a rancher from east of Pueblo, decried a confusing array of rules and laws that he says make it impossible to thrive in agriculture.
"The whole process is out of balance for you to survive," he said.
But several scientists, environmentalists and nonprofit groups are wary that Bush is seeking to erode cornerstone laws created in the early 1970s to protect the environment. Last week, many said the Endangered Species Act appears to be under siege.
"It is not broke," said SeEtta Moss, conservation chair for Audubon Colorado. "It doesn't need fixing."
The listening tour, which builds on a 2005 White House conference on cooperative conservation, wraps up in October.
In the following months, a report will be released and various federal agencies will propose initiatives based on the report, Rey said in an interview after the session.
Some laws, he said, such as the Endangered Species Act, appear to need modifications.
"The act has very strong supporters," he said. "But there are some ideas that have surfaced that can strengthen the act."
He did not elaborate on measures that would strengthen the act.
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