Tuesday, September 20, 2005

ENV: The House: Garbage in, garbage out . . . I

House Bill Would Limit U.S. Power to Protect Species
By FELICITY BARRINGER, The New York Times, September 20, 2005

WASHINGTON, Sept. 19 - The chairman of the House committee overseeing natural resources introduced a bill Monday that would make it more difficult for the federal government to set aside land it deems crucial to the health of endangered species.

The proposed amendments to the Endangered Species Act also increase the obligation of government agencies to tell landowners quickly if the law limits their development options, and to compensate them.

The measure, which drew quick denunciations from groups like Environmental Defense, Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council, was proposed by the House Resources Committee chairman, Representative Richard W. Pombo, Republican of California. It was immediately put on a fast track, which is expected to bring it before the full House early next week.

In a news conference Monday, Mr. Pombo said his legislation "will put the focus on recovery where it should be and will eliminate a lot of the conflicts we have had with private property owners."

The proposal was markedly different from draft legislation circulated earlier this summer, which put even greater restrictions on federal agencies that enforce the law, and which would have automatically taken the law off the books in 2015. The new measure abandons the latter goal but creates new hurdles for federal agencies - chiefly the Fish and Wildlife Service - as they take actions to protect species.

The Endangered Species Act has been a flashpoint for landowners, property-rights advocates and state and local governments, most in the West, who see its provisions as onerous and costly, and chafe at the ability of people not directly involved in a dispute to sue the federal government to ensure compliance with the law.

At the same time, the law is credited with preventing the extinction of hundreds of species of insects, plants and animals in the past quarter-century, though only a handful of the more than 1,200 listed species have recovered sufficiently to be removed from the list.

Mr. Pombo's first effort to rewrite the law, in the mid 1990's, failed. Since becoming chairman of the committee, he had made this goal a priority.

An important part of the legislation is a provision that allows the Interior Department, the parent agency of the Fish and Wildlife Service, to provide "conservation grants" to property owners who are deemed to be helping conserve an endangered species. The legislation also requires that property owners be paid "fair market value" if, in the view of federal biologists, their development plans would violate the law.

The purpose of the compensation would be "to alleviate the burden of conservation measure imposed on" landowners who forgo their plans in order to help a species' survive.

Chuck Cushman, the executive director American Land Rights Association, praised this approach, saying: "We're getting away from the command-and-control penalty concept. More landowners will feel free to help species and not feel that they're going to lose their land.

Right now, Mr. Cushman added, "there's a fair amount of shoot, shovel and shut up going on," by landowners who would rather break the law and kill an endangered animal than risk facing land-use restrictions.

But Michael Bean, who heads the wildlife protection program at Environmental Defense and was an early proponent of working with landowners, criticized the new measure as a "big step backwards for endangered species conservation." He faulted a new requirement that federal scientists provide, within 90 days, an answer to any landowner's question about whether a planned activity would run afoul of the act by harming an endangered species.

Under the new law, if the government has not answered within 90 days, the landowner can proceed with the plans. Mr. Bean said "there's potentially no limit to the sorts of requests that could be made of" federal biologists "by businesses seeking to develop, build, cut trees."

The Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, he added, have traditionally been stretched in trying to meet deadlines in the existing law and have frequently failed to do so.