Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Senators consider change to endangered species law

by on January 11, 2014 10:59 AM

The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission and the Game Commission’s power to designate animals as endangered could be as threatened as the species on their lists.

Two Republican-sponsored bills are proposing to strip the commissions of the final word on declaring animals endangered and streams as wild trout streams.

Under Senate Bill 1047 and its companion, House Bill 1576, which is sponsored by Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City, the commissions could still propose animals and streams be placed on the lists, but it would be up to another independent body, the Independent Regulatory Review Commission, to make the final call.

The commission, made up of five appointed members, is tasked with reviewing regulations developed by Pennsylvania agencies. It is intended to provide oversight of the executive branch and help ensure that new regulations don’t impose a hidden cost on the state’s economy.

At a hearing Friday morning on the Senate’s version of the bill, a panel of Republican senators assembled at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and pressed the wildlife commissions’ executive directors to give reasons why the review commission shouldn’t have the final word.

The wildlife commissions’ executive directors, John Arway, of the Fish & Boat Commission, and Carl Roe, of the Game Commission, told the senators that taking that authority away would, among other things, bog down the process by which animals are declared endangered and potentially jeopardize millions in federal funding.

But Sen. Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, who sponsored the Senate bill, said he believed the bill is a matter of good government.

“Unbridled, unchecked authority doesn’t help anybody,” Scarnati said. “This bill is about checks and balances. That’s what it’s about, simply checks and balances,” he said.

“This isn’t about the gas industry, soley,” he added, addressing criticism that the bill is a concession to the state’s shale-gas industry. “There’s other entities in the commonwealth, many entities that invest tens of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in trying to move forward.”

Scarnati’s comments reflected the main argument that the senators had for supporting the bill. They said environmental concerns need to be balanced with business development and job creation. As it is, no one is looking over the shoulders of the two wildlife commissions, which are using scientific data no one is allowed to see to make decisions, they said.

Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, asked Arway and Roe whether they could envision a scenario in which a development-minded governor appoints a majority of commissioners, who then hire a like-minded executive director interested in job preservation more than conservation.

That question, along with several others, elicited scoffs from some in the audience, and one person in the audience said out loud that Pennsylvania already has that very sort of governor in office.

Scenarios aside, some of the senators pointed to real-life examples they said show the commissions to be less than helpful to business.

Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia, spoke of the discovery of a spadefoot toad breeding ground that, in his view, unnecessarily halted expansion of an industrial park in Milton.

“Congratulations,” he said. “Ten years later, thanks to the Fish & Boat commission and their biologists, there’s nothing there.”

And Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, who sat on the panel as the hearing’s host senator, recounted a fight he had had with the Fish & Boat Commission over a mollusk and Allegheny River dredging.

He said the commission’s threatened declaration and its resistance to compromise ended dredging the river for road materials, which had been an industry that provided what he called family-sustaining jobs for more than 100 years.

At the same time, no one has been able to show him the positive environmental or economic impact of protecting the mollusk, he said.

He said that although a compromise was ultimately reached, it took two years to get it, and by then the industry had collapsed and the jobs were permanently lost.

“Once we put these people on these commissions, they’re not answerable to anybody as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “And that incident I had over at the Allegheny River is a perfect example of it.”

Both Roe and Arway told the senators they are confusing the matter.

The commissions are statutorily obligated to make determinations about declaring species threatened, but whether development somehow will encroach on those species and whether necessary environmental permits should be issued is a matter for other state agencies to decide, they said.

Additionally, both said their respective agencies have been diligent in responding to the needs of business.

“In my 33 years with the PFBC, I cannot cite one example of where we have not been able to resolve a conflict with industry on a (threatened and endangered) species issue,” Arway said.

But Sen. Richard Alloway, R-Adams, asked the directors why, then, would industry be pushing for the bill’s adoption when there isn’t a problem.

Arway said he believes business interests are trying to find someone to provide another answer, someone to say no when the wildlife commissions say yes.

Sam Kusic is a staff writer for The Indiana Gazette.
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