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Fix ESA Without Partisan Politics

by Staff
Capital Press, November 18, 2005

If some members of Congress need proof that the federal Endangered Species Act needs revision, they should talk to Randy Vilhauer.

The Sheridan, Ore., farmer opened his mail recently and found a four-page letter from Kemper M. McMaster, state supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Dear Interested Party," it began.

The letter informed Vilhauer and his neighbors in the Willamette Valley that their farms are part of 3,901 acres proposed as critical habitat for the Fender's blue butterfly, Kincaid's lupine and Willamette daisy.

After reading the letter, Vilhauer's next step was to call a lawyer. With all of the uncertainties revolving around the ESA, which has spawned lawsuit after lawsuit across the West, he believed he needed legal advice to determine how the critical habitat proposal will affect him and his farm.

That, specifically, is one reason the ESA is broken. Not just cracked; it is broken. The fact that farmers and ranchers believe they need legal representation just to protect their rights under the ESA is, by itself, an indictment of the law and how it is applied.

It is also proof of why reforming the ESA in Congress is not a party-line issue or a rural vs. urban issue; it is a much-needed rewrite based on a three-decade-long track record littered with ineffectiveness and legal strong-arm tactics used against farmers and ranchers.

Yet a look at how members of the U.S. House voted on HR3824, the Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act, shows that only 35 Democrats were among the 229 votes cast in favor of the reform.

Co-sponsored by Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo, R-Calif., and Reps. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., George Radanovich, R-Calif., and Greg Walden, R-Ore., TESRA would help farmers and ranchers meet the needs of recovering endangered species without being forced to bear the financial burden. It would also provide for peer review of scientific determinations.

Yet, sadly, when the votes were cast, the Oregon and Washington delegations split along party and urban-rural lines. Despite the fact that the ESA has loomed large in issues ranging from salmon litigation to timber issues, not one of Washington's six Democratic members of the House voted for TESRA. At the same time, two of the three Washington Republicans voted for it, with Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Bellevue, the lone "no" vote.

In Oregon, none of the four Democratic members of the House voted for TESRA.

In California, only Cardoza, who represents Merced, Calif., and Reps. Joe Baca of San Bernardino and Jim Costa of Fresno voted for it out of 33 California Democrats in the House.

Why is it that urban members of the House bypassed this opportunity to help fix such a deeply flawed law? Why would they want to retain a law that does so little to help species and so much to hurt agriculture?

Though some in the House may have seen fixing the ESA as a partisan issue, it is not. Members of the Senate know the many shortcomings of the ESA need to rectified if it is ever to meet its goal of bringing back endangered species from the brink of extinction. Under the current ESA, of the about 1,300 species listed as threatened or endangered, fewer than 1 percent have been helped.

Considering the cost to farmers, ranchers, the timber industry and taxpayers, that track record is abysmal.

Now the issue goes to the U.S. Senate, where Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, plans to introduce legislation aimed at fixing the ESA. Farmers and ranchers are looking to the Senate to set aside partisanship and take up the banner of making the ESA more effective by working with landowners, not against them.

As it currently stands, the ESA is an equal-opportunity blunt instrument used against farmers, ranchers and others whose only mistake is owning the land where endangered species still live. In its uniquely perverse way, ESA punishes them because they are stewards of the land.

As passed in the House, TESRA will fix that. Now it's up to members of the Senate to set aside party and urban-rural differences, roll up their sleeves and work to make TESRA work for rare plants and animals -- and all Americans.

Only when that happens will Randy Vilhauer and other farmers and ranchers feel more confident about their future.

Fix ESA Without Partisan Politics
Capital Press, November 18, 2005

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