From: Erica Werner, Associated Press
Published September 21, 2005 12:00 AM

Endangered Species Act Rewrite Would Cut Critical Habitat Provisions

WASHINGTON — Congress is considering proposed changes to the 32-year-old Endangered Species Act that would get the government out of the business of setting aside critical habitat for threatened plants and animals.


That would eliminate a central element of the landmark law.


An overhaul of the Endangered Species Act, proposed by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., was going before the House Resources Committee on Wednesday. Pombo, the committee's chairman, wants his panel to vote on it Thursday and he hopes the full House will consider it next week.


Environmentalists fear that eliminating the government's ability to establish critical habitat would take away a key to species survival.


"Even a young schoolchild recognizes that every species needs a home," said Susan Holmes, senior legislative representative at Earthjustice.


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Pombo's bill also would compensate landowners if the federal government blocks their development plans to prevent negative impacts on species, and would give political appointees the responsibility of making some scientific determinations.


Landowners would be able to move forward with development projects that might affect species after notifying the federal government, unless the government objects within 90 days.


Pombo, who has been trying for more than a decade to rewrite the Endangered Species Act, contends the law leads to more lawsuits than benefits for plants and animals.


"It has been a failure at recovering species and it has been a failure in terms of the conflict with private property owners," he said, noting that a tiny percentage of the 1,830 species listed under the act -- about 15 -- have come off the list because they've recovered.


Many farm and property rights groups agree with Pombo. But environmentalists and many Democrats contend the law has been successful, pointing out that only nine listed species have gone extinct.


In the mid-1990s, Pombo failed to get a bill rewriting the law through the House. He introduced his new bill with Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., and five other moderate-to-conservative Democrats already on board.


But the Resources Committee's top Democrat, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, said talks to reach a consensus bill had broken down and he wouldn't support Pombo's legislation.


Environmentalists are counting on the bill running into trouble in the Senate.


Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., a moderate who chairs the fisheries and wildlife subcommittee of the Environment and Public Works Committee, is holding hearings on the Endangered Species Act and considering introducing a bill. Chafee spokesman Stephen Hourahan said the senator has concerns about the critical habitat provision in Pombo's legislation.


Pombo says his bill compensates for the elimination of critical habitat by strengthening the focus on species recovery, including adding a deadline for the government to develop "species recovery plans." Environmentalists counter that the recovery plans in Pombo's bill don't have regulatory force, and that critical habitat designations are needed.


Source: Associated Press


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