The nation's most prominent and contentious environmental law, the 1973 Endangered Species Act, could be in line for a major overhaul that would limit habitat protections while giving new rights to property owners.
WASHINGTON The nation's most prominent and contentious environmental law, the 1973 Endangered Species Act, could be in line for a major overhaul that would limit habitat protections while giving new rights to property owners.
Legislation by House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo would eliminate "critical habitat" protection for plants and animals where development is limited; would allow political appointees to make some scientific determinations; and would require the federal government to compensate property owners whose development plans are blocked to protect species.
The fast-moving bill was approved by the Resources Committee last week and was set for a House vote Thursday.
Pombo, a conservative rancher from California's Central Valley, has been aiming for more than a decade to rewrite the Endangered Species Act, arguing it forces landowners to bear unreasonable burdens to protect plants and animals, leads to costly lawsuits and isn't successful enough in recovering species.
"In our bill we protect the small property owners," Pombo said Thursday as debate began on the House floor. "It was a compromise, a reasonable way to protect endangered species, to protect the habitat which they need to recover."
The bill also would compensate affected property owners, Pombo said, "and dang it, we should."
The White House issued a statement Thursday supporting the bill to "improve and update" the act but also noting that payments to private property owners "could result in a significant budgetary impact."
Many Democrats, as well as some moderate Republicans, said Pombo's bill would destroy a law they credit with preserving species such as the bald eagle, the California sea otter and the Florida manatee.
The bill "changes the Endangered Species Act in a radical, radical way," Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said Thursday. "It's an entitlement program for landowners who want to gut the Endangered Species Act."
The Fish and Wildlife Service says there are 1,268 threatened and endangered plants and animals in the United States. About a dozen have been taken off the list over the years because they've been determined to have recovered, while nine have gone extinct.
Opponents of the law say the numbers show it's not working, while supporters say the same figures show it's successful because it's keeping species alive.
Pombo's bill would:
--Eliminate "critical habitat," area that is now required to be designated when a species is listed and is protected from harmful actions by federal agencies. Instead, "recovery plans" for species, including designation of habitat, would have to be developed within two years. The recovery plans would not have regulatory force and the habitat would not be protected from federal actions.
--Specify that landowners with development plans are due answers from the interior secretary within 180 days, with a 180-day extension possible, about whether their development would harm protected species. If the government doesn't answer in time, the development could go forward. If the government blocks the development, the landowner would be paid the fair market value of the proposed development.
--Give the interior secretary the job of determining what constitutes appropriate scientific data for decision-making under the law.
A group of Democrats and moderate Republicans plans to offer an alternate bill Thursday that strengthens the recovery plans, eliminates the payments to landowners for blocked developments and creates a scientific advisory board.
Pombo, whose last attempt to rewrite the Endangered Species Act didn't get through the House in the mid-1990s, is convinced the House will pass his bill this time. Its future in the Senate is far less certain.
The Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee with jurisdiction is chaired by a moderate, Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., who said he has serious qualms about elements of Pombo's bill. He plans to wait for recommendations from a study group meeting in Colorado before deciding whether to move forward with a bill of his own.
Source: Associated Press