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Commentaries and editorials

Species Act Report Mixed on Pombo

by Hank Shaw, Capitol Bureau Chief
The Record, April 15, 2006

SACRAMENTO - A recent federal analysis of the Endangered Species Act rapped Rep. Richard Pombo's rhetoric on the controversial law at the same time it bolstered his argument that the act needs overhauling.

The report released by the Government Accountability Office could prove moot, because the Tracy Republican's proposal to substantially revise the act has stalled in the Senate and faces an uncertain future.

Pombo often cites as his strongest proof that the Endangered Species Act is broken the fact that only 17 of the 1,300 plants and animals tagged as threatened or endangered have recovered enough to escape the list.

The report by the GAO, a federal agency whose job is to watch how Congress spends taxpayers' money, called Pombo's favorite sound bite simplistic.

"Simply counting the number of extinct and recovered species periodically or over time, without considering the recovery prospects of listed species, provides limited insight into the overall success of the services' recovery programs," the report states.

Environmental groups jumped on the GAO analysis.

"Richard Pombo's lies and exaggerations are catching up with him," said Kieran Suckling, policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "The GAO has confirmed that his primary anti-Endangered Species Act message is gibberish."

On the flip side, the GAO did recommend that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service develop exactly the kind of specific species recovery plans - including time frames and cost estimates - that Pombo's proposal requires.

Only a tiny fraction of recovery plans for endangered and threatened species in the act included time frames or cost estimates, and many of those that did offered only vague numbers, the report showed.

The GAO said this leaves Fish & Wildlife and the Marine Fisheries Service open to lawsuits by both environmentalists and aggrieved property owners who have threatened creatures on their land.

Pombo said the report - the latest in a flurry of official analyses of the 33-year-old law - vindicates his bill.

"When you fail to plan appropriately, you plan to fail," Pombo said in a statement. "This is precisely what has happened under the ESA, and it is tantamount to doing a jig-saw puzzle in the dark or trying to treat a patient without making a thorough diagnosis first."

But election politics and the mechanics of the U.S. Senate could scuttle Pombo's effort.

After years of attempts, Pombo is closer to his career-long goal of revising the act than he has ever been. His bill passed the House last fall with bipartisan support; Merced Democrat Dennis Cardoza was his co-sponsor.

Votes split largely along regional, not political, lines. Western politicians of both parties have more visceral experiences with the Endangered Species Act, because nearly every acre of designated habitat for the creatures lies east of the Mississippi River.

San Joaquin County and the Mother Lode are home to at least a half-dozen species, including riparian brush rabbits that fled flooding in Lathrop earlier this week and the red-legged frog, whose critical habitat was restricted by the Fish & Wildlife service Thursday.

In the Senate, power lies in the East, thanks to its larger number of smaller states. And Eastern politicians are traditionally reluctant to tinker with the act. Their constituents rarely have firsthand experience with some of the law's more restrictive provisions.

Holding the key to Pombo's ultimate success is a Rhode Islander: Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a moderate who is locked in a tough primary fight for re-election.

Chafee has repeatedly said he fears any revisions the Senate passes would become "Pombo-ized" in the negotiations between the two chambers that take place before a bill can become law. He thinks Pombo's proposal goes too far.

Chafee is "very pessimistic about something happening this year," his spokesman Stephen Hourahan told The Associated Press last week.

Even if the committee does come up with a bill, it will face numerous hurdles. Congress will not return until late April, midterm elections loom, and immigration and other issues crowd the agenda, leaving little time for Endangered Species Act changes in the 109th Congress.

That would mean starting the process anew next year.

Pombo spokesman Brian Kennedy said the congressman is not giving up just yet.

"We are still working," he said.

Hank Shaw, Capitol Bureau Chief
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Species Act Report Mixed on Pombo
The Record, April 15, 2006

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