LOS ANGELES – From insects to otters, the Endangered Species Act protects America’s plants and animals – but often to the detriment of people.
In Klamath Falls, Ore., for instance, environmentalists used the ESA to divert water from farmers to help preserve an endangered fish.
"We weren’t just defeated – we were devastated," said farmer Marty Macey. "They could have hit us with an atomic bomb and it would not have done more damage than taking the water away from us."
Now people, politicians and even some conservationists are praying for divine intervention.
"We are doing everything we can by trying to involve the God Squad," said Congressman Wally Herger, a Republican from California.
Highly controversial, the God Squad – officially, the Endangered Species Committee – is a group of seven federal and state elected officials, and has the power to overrule the Endangered Species Act in certain instances. The ESA requires that the rights of endangered species take priority over all other rights.
Formed in 1978 by an amendment added to the act, the God Squad has among its members the secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture and the Army; the chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisors; the directors of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); and one state representative.
"If those folks are making the decisions, it's good-bye wildlife," said Keiran Suckling of the Center for Biodiversity. "I also think it's good-bye George Bush, because the American public is not going to stand by and let Bush drive species extinct."
Armed with the authority to decide whether a species lives or dies, the God Squad can deliver a death sentence to a critter or an entire community of animals with its decisions. The Klamath Basin could qualify for God Squad intervention because the federal government did away with 1,400 farmers' water irrigation rights using the ESA in favor of the rights of threatened species of fish.
"This is a classic example of the Endangered Species Act [being] dangerous, and we need to look at ways of offsetting the power of the Act," said Bob McLandress of the California Waterfowl Association.
In Klamath Lake, 430 species depend on the water, yet under the Act two species of sucker fish got it all. Downstream, salmon have no water to spawn, migratory birds have no water for their wetlands and farms that provide more than half the animals' food have no water for growing crops.
"The farms themselves provide a tremendous food base for waterfowl and many other critters in the Klamath Basin," McLandress said.
Only three times in the last 23 years has a U.S. president convened the God Squad. While Bush may sympathize with farmers, many believe he won't intervene so as to avoid antagonizing the environmental lobby.
Nevertheless, both sides admit that the Klamath dispute has sparked a new debate about whether the Endangered Species Act should be saved – or scrapped.