WASHINGTON Conservative lawmakers poised to eliminate key
provisions of the landmark 32-year-old Endangered Species Act
encountered unexpected support recently: Some environmentalists
and liberal Democrats said they agree with some of the changes.
"There is a recognition that the current critical habitat
arrangement doesn't work, for a whole host of reasons," said Rep.
George Miller, D-Calif., a leading liberal voice on the House
Resources Committee. "There are some in the environmental
community who think the answer is just no to any change, and I
think that's a problem."
Miller and other Democrats said that without substantial
amendments, they still can't support a bill by Resources Committee
Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., that's set for a committee vote
Pombo's bill is a top-to-bottom overhaul of the Endangered
Species Act that would delete the federal government's ability to
protect "critical habitat" for plants and animals and require
compensation for landowners if the government blocks their
development plans to protect certain species.
Landowners could move forward with development projects that
might affect species after notifying the federal government, unless
the government objects within 90 days.
Assistant Interior Secretary Craig Manson, head of the Fish and
Wildlife Service, said the Bush administration hasn't developed a
formal position on Pombo's bill. He said the agency agrees some
parts of the law should be changed, including critical habitat, but
other programs are troublesome including the proposed
Pombo, a conservative rancher, contends the Endangered Species
Act causes lawsuits and conflicts with landowners while failing to
do enough for species. He notes that a tiny percentage of the 1,830
species listed under the act about 15 have come off the list because they've recovered; supporters counter that only nine listed species have gone extinct.
"I am willing to do whatever we can to put the focus on
recovery and do what we can to recover these species as long as my
property owners are protected," Pombo said.
Even some supporters say the designation of critical habitat
where development is limited is driven by lawsuits, leading to bad
decisions. Critics cite the proposal to list 4.1 million acres in
California parts of 28 of the state's 58 counties as habitat
for the red-legged frog.
But Democrats and environmentalists who were willing to say
goodbye to critical habitat wanted Pombo to propose stronger
language in other parts of the bill in exchange. Instead they say
he erased critical habitat without including other mechanisms to
protect species' homes.
Democrats also complained that Pombo hasn't given them enough
time to study the bill. The first hearing was Wednesday, it's set
for a committee vote Thursday, and Pombo hopes to get it through
the full House next week. Pombo last attempted to rewrite the
Endangered Species Act in the mid-1990s, but failed.
Even if it passes the House, the bill could have trouble in the
Senate. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., a moderate who chairs an
Environment and Public Works subcommittee, is holding hearings and
considering introducing a bill. Spokesman Stephen Hourahan said the
senator has concerns about Pombo's critical habitat provision.