U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings was vilified by environmental bloggers last month when he announced plans to revisit the Endangered Species Act.
The Republican representative of Eastern Washington's 4th Congressional District can't be voted out of office soon enough to please a raft of online commenters posting on westside websites.
But if the act is gutted, as environmentalists fear, they better take a hard look in the mirror before assigning blame.
We've seen environmental lawyers wield the ESA like a bludgeon to smash hard-won compromises that would clearly benefit endangered Northwest salmon runs.
As a result, after 20 years of trying to produce a salmon management plan -- called an Biological Opinion, or BiOp, for the Columbia River system -- the federal government remains stalled.
The latest agreement, which would have provided nearly a $1 billion over a decade to improve fish and lamprey survival in the basin, looked momentarily like it might actually shift the battle to save salmon from the courtroom to the river.
The proposal was supported by the Umatilla, Yakama, Warm Springs and Colville Indian tribes, the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Power Administration, the Bureau of Reclamation and the states of Montana, Idaho and Washington.
Of course, the environmental wing that supports dam removal responded to the agreement with a federal lawsuit. No oracle required to predict that outcome.
More than six years ago, we warned environmental groups that they were in danger of becoming victims of their own success.
"Environmental groups that remain intransigent risk losing far more through stubbornness than they'd give up in negotiating a compromise," we cautioned.
At the time, the House had passed an overhaul of the Endangered Species Act in what was clearly a backlash against a perceived anti-business bias in the environmental community.
Environmentalists eventually prevailed, but hoping to always muster enough political power to get their way seems a dangerous path for environmentalists.
Amending the act to create a better balance between economic and environmental interests isn't necessarily a bad course. Americans want economic prosperity and preservation of our natural heritage. Those aren't mutually exclusive goals.
Major provisions of that 2005 attempt to overhaul the act -- stopping the government from designating "critical habitat" for endangered species, requiring payments to property owners who suffer losses under the act and putting the executive branch in charge of deciding what scientific data is good enough -- went too far.
Fortunately, the Senate rejected the proposed overhaul, which would have tilted the balance too heavily in favor of developers and other commercial interests.
As chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Hastings is ready to take another look at revising the ESA.
Frankly, we can't blame environmentalists for being skeptical. Hastings' record doesn't suggest that he's likely to champion their interests.
But refusing to play ball might not be the best strategy, especially in today's tough economy.
In a statement announcing the initiative, Hastings said, "Today, the ESA is failing to achieve its original purpose of species recovery, creates unnecessary and costly regulations that hurt jobs and economic prosperity, and is being abused as a tool for expensive, debilitating lawsuits."
He's not wrong about any of that. The question is whether the congressional review that's under way will result in legislation that would improve the ESA or merely weaken it.
As we've said before, a middle ground exists between blind allegiance to the 1973 Endangered Species Act and gutting it.
We ought to at least try to find it.
If revisions could shift the focus of restoring endangered species from the courtroom to the field, everyone would benefit.