Guest opinion

Where does our government place the higher priority - the welfare of the surviving dependents of our soldiers killed in military service or the welfare of fish? I hope the answer bothers you as much as it does me. Fish come first - people last.

Two recent reports on the federal government's spending of taxpayer-generated revenues offer an informative, though troubling, commentary on the government's changing priorities between human value and that of fish, plants and wildlife species.

Rush Limbaugh's research pointed out that the surviving spouse of a U.S. soldier killed in military service to our country receives a $6,000 direct death benefit - half of which is taxable, $1,750 for burial costs, and $833 per month thereafter unless remarried. In addition, each child of a deceased soldier receives $211 per month until age 18.

In contrast, the environmental group, Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, recently condemned in harsh terms the spending of only $1 billion over two years for a salmon preservation and recovery program on Washington's Columbia and Snake rivers. "After two years and more than $1 billion spent, we see little return on the investment," declared coalition spokesman, Bruce Babbitt, the former Interior secretary. Typical of the modern environmentalist movement, this group demands an additional $8 billion be spent for salmon protection on these two rivers in the next eight years. And that's not all. They also clamor for tearing down several of the two rivers' working dams - a more costly undertaking than the Babbitt-approved practice of moving the salmon around the dams on barges. Never mind that the livelihoods of many families living in the region would be severely damaged by breaching the dams.

Yet, the annual billion being spent to protect salmon on just these two rivers alone is a fraction of the total federal dollars continuously flowing to such preservation projects. Nationwide, preservation and recovery dollars spent each year on the 96 fish species protected under the Endangered Species Act amount to several billions. Indeed, if federal protection program expenditures for the 904 different species of plants and wildlife other than fish are combined, the multi-billion dollar figure is astounding. And spending for such programs has been ongoing since the mid-1970s.

This unconscionable imbalance in the allocation of federal resources between salmon and soldiers - people and species - has an even more sinister side. Each day, all across the country, this extreme, almost pantheistic devotion to protecting every species of wildlife is dramatically affecting people's lives and livelihoods in life-or-death ways that rarely make the news outside of their local areas.

• Like the stretch of narrow two-lane highway in northern California dubbed "Blood Alley" because so many people have been killed or injured in automobile accidents over several years, but that cannot be widened due to the presence of a protected tiny wildflower.

• Like the economically depressed neighborhood in southern California, where the discovery of eight protected Delhi sands flower-loving flies delayed for over a year the construction of a much-needed county medical care facility, not only denying residents emergency treatment, but costing local taxpayers $3.5 million for the acquisition of a new site.

• Like the four young firefighters who died during a wildfire in eastern Washington, because U.S. Forest Service officials, fearing the legal consequences of violating the ESA, delayed for 11 hours a decision to allow firefighting helicopters to scoop water from a nearby river inhabited by a protected species of trout. Such examples abound.

The hopelessly vague ESA was sold to the public in 1973 as a vehicle for protecting popular species. Over the ensuing 30 years, organizations with intense environmental agendas have grown wealthy and large, publicly marketing their anti-people environmental mission with the irresistible images of fuzzy brown bears, the gray wolf mother with her pups, and the American eagle. At the same time, and quite below the general public's awareness level, these groups aggressively manipulate the pro-species ESA to protect hundreds of obscure, mostly unrecognizable species.

Today, reasonable people embrace the value of preserving as many plant, fish and wildlife species as practical. But the choice between soldiers and their families - indeed, between people and various forms of wildlife, is a no-brainer. It is time to reform the ESA to make that clear.

M. David Stirling is vice-president of Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest legal organization that advocates in the federal and state courts on behalf of environmental balance and common sense. He may be reached at: mds@pacificlegal.org. See the Web site: www.pacificlegal.org.

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