by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & n a sunny morning last week, a platoon of Girl Scouts, doing their best to maintain an attentive demeanor, stood at parade rest on the creaky wooden footbridge that crosses the Spokane River behind the Opera House and Convention Center.

In front of them a bunch of grownups were droning on about Important Themes, such as standing shoulder to shoulder ... blah blah blah ... facing the bright future ... blah blah ... and working together for a cleaner and healthier environment.

It was enough to make any kid worth her salt want to fidget like crazy. But the Girl Scouts, from Medical Lake and Spokane's Discovery School, who perform a variety of volunteer tasks at the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, were seasoned vets. They stood through it all with impressive calm.

Dirk Kempthorne was doing a fair share of the droning as he outlined an effort to create a new, friendlier dynamic for handling environmental concerns as a nationwide series of "listening sessions" debuted right here in the river city.

The personable former Governor of Idaho (who once was a fidgety kid at Spokane's Franklin Elementary School) joined President George W. Bush's cabinet a couple of months ago when he was appointed Secretary of the Interior. Kempthorne is now Bush's point man on the two-month series of 24 listening sessions, in which he and other cabinet-level officials will try to find a way for collaboration between environmental groups, industry and government.

"The message is 'Please come to these listening sessions. We want to hear you.' The old environmental discussion of pitting one group against another is not the way to go," Kempthorne told the gathering. He then characterized Bush as creating a "green" legacy: "I think one of the things this president will be remembered for is cooperative conservation."

Steve Johnson, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, another of the cabinet-level luminaries in Spokane, picked up the theme: "By any measure, our air has gotten cleaner, our water has gotten cleaner and our land is better protected," under Bush.

This sort of talk makes the adults in the crowd begin to fidget and seek out a subtext to the listening sessions, especially when Kempthorne opens the session by pitching local control of environmental issues and asks "is the Endangered Species Act effective?"

Ostensibly an effort to build bridges between conservation and industry groups, the tenor of the listening session quickly became a referendum on revising (or scrapping) the Endangered Species Act.

Most in attendance (and nearly all of the 87 who rose to make brief comments) were either rural elected officials or represented timber, farming, ranching or home-building groups who overwhelmingly cited federal obstacles to salvage logging or other land uses.

"Person after person got up and said, 'We need to weaken one law or another because it's bad for business,'" said Mike Peterson of the Spokane-based Lands Council. "In a sense, I feel the Bush Administration is using these hearings as a smokescreen for their agenda of local control and privatizing publicly held assets -- and under the mockery of calling it cooperative conservation."

Peterson, one of the few environmentalists at the listening session, was invited by Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke. The two were part of a truly collaborative effort that recently resolved a phosphorus discharge crisis in the Spokane River, working with industry and conservationists, as well as city, county and state governments.

Mielke hailed the success of the effort for Kempthorne, Johnson and other cabinet members, but Peterson later pointed out that no laws or regulations needed to be altered in order to make the Spokane River effort a success.

Sam Mace, of Save our Wild Salmon, has worked for years building coalitions of conservationists, sportsmen and industry on a variety of issues pertaining to salmon restoration. She also says no laws need be changed to make cooperative conservation work. And, Mace points out, the listening sessions are held in relative safe havens like Spokane.

"They would get a different response if they went to a city like Astoria, where the fishermen recognize the Endangered Species Act is all about keeping their jobs," Mace said. "The Pacific Coast Federation of Fisheries Associations, Alaska Trollers Association, Washington Trollers Association, Puget Sound Gillnetters have testified consistently in support of the Endangered Species Act."

She suspects the listening sessions are merely a way to create a paper trail that shows support for weakening the Act. She may be right: The National Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition (NESARC), based in Washington, D.C., sent an e-mail to members after the Spokane listening session, thanking them for rallying the troops and urging continued turnout at future listening sessions, so the ESA can someday be changed.

In an e-mail that was forwarded to The Inlander, NESARC Executive Director Nancy Macan McNally wrote: "NESARC members did an outstanding job activating their local members to attend."

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