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Activist disputes accusation of fee gouging

The Center for Biological Diversity disputes the allegation by the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association and others that environmentalist groups are raking in billions from federal court battles.

“That is mythology that has no basis in reality,” said John Buse, legal director for the national nonprofit organization.

He denies that environmental groups are using the Equal Access to Justice Act as a tool to repeatedly sue federal agencies and then, with a win or settlement, recoup huge attorney fees.

Buse did not have a breakdown of the center’s budget available Tuesday, but said less than $50,000 per year is from federal reimbursement of attorney fees. He said no more than 5 percent of the group’s total budget is derived from federal sources and about 45 suits of all types are filed each year.

“It’s important to receive fees when we win cases, but it’s rarely significant,” he said.

“It’s not a dependable source of support for any organization, so you can’t plan on that.”

Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice provided the House Natural Resources Committee with a report showing that from January 2009 to April 2012, 489 cases were filed in federal court by environmental groups. The total payout for a win or settlement of these cases was $52,518,628 in taxpayer dollars.

Buse disagrees with that figure. He believes the agency factored in cases from the past that were still open and the actual expense is much lower. He said it is difficult to track down numbers when there is no central database to draw information from.

“Although that report appears to cover a little over a three year period, we believe it actually covers more than 20 years,” he said.

He said the same faulty calculations might have been used for another report regarding a six year period in the 2000s.

Attorney Karen Budd-Falen, who fights federal court battles on behalf of ranchers, compiled government data to show that environmental groups during that time period filed more than 15,000 suits against federal agencies charged with resource protection and received settlements of more than $4.7 billion from taxpayers.

“There is no comprehensive tracking system,” Buse said. “Billions might have been paid out over many years, but that’s still less than payouts for suits filed on behalf of veterans and seniors.”

While the center is not opposed to a central data base being set up as a tracking tool, Buse said the “devil’s in the details,” because reform bills proposed by Congress to date toward that end have also attempted to undermine environmental laws.

“I’m not sure those proposals really fit the bill,” he said.

He said lawsuits filed by the center are usually against an agency that has missed a deadline during the review process for a plant or animal that might be threatened or endangered. He said it is not uncommon to have these cases settled out of court because “there is no excuse” for an agency not to fulfill its responsibilities.

“Why waste taxpayer money on a lawsuit they are not going to win?” he asked.

Although critics say the center, and other environmental organizations, flood U.S. Fish and Wildlife with species evaluations — there are currently 757 proposals for listing — to force a settlement, Buse disagrees.

He said the desire to save vulnerable plant and animal species from extinction is what drives the environmental movement. For that reason, these groups are united against Congressional proposals to reduce the level of protection offered by the Endangered Species Act.

“The claim that they are not working [regulations are too burdensome] is not correct,” he said. “The ESA works better than many laws, the success rate is high.”

Buse said environmental attorneys can recoup more money for winning court battles than attorneys for other protected groups because of their prevailing market rates.

“It’s a market for people’s expertise, so if they can satisfy the requirements, why can’t they get their fees?” he asked.

He said hourly rates of $750 per hour or more, as reported by critics, are not usual and most payouts are far less than the attorney usually earns.

He said environmental lawyers are providing a public benefit, unlike industries that are reimbursed large legal fees when they prevail in a challenge of federal regulations.

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