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Lawmakers Push to Change Conservation Law

by Erica Werner, Associated Press
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - April 27, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Two lawmakers, a Republican and a Democrat from neighboring California farm districts, are angering environmentalists by trying to change the way habitats for endangered plants and animals are designated.

House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, a longtime Republican foe of the Endangered Species Act, has scheduled a hearing Wednesday on a bill (H.R. 2933) by Democratic Rep. Dennis Cardoza to give the Interior Department more leeway in designating habitats critical to the survival of endangered or threatened species.

Now, critical habitat is supposed to be designated when a species is listed as endangered or threatened, though that often is delayed. Cardoza's bill would prevent the government from designating habitat until a species recovery plan is developed, and only then if it's "practicable, economically feasible and determinable."

Because there is no mandatory timeline for a developing a recovery plan, environmentalists contend the bill would, in effect, indefinitely postpone the designation of critical habitats. Any development is generally precluded in an area determined to be a critical habitat.

"It hardly matters what you do for species if you don't take care of their habitat, and yet this chairman is single-handedly leading a crusade to eviscerate the habitat protection standards of the Endangered Species Act," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive director of Defenders of Wildlife and head of the Fish and Wildlife Service during President Clinton's second term.

Pombo issued a position paper Tuesday calling the Endangered Species Act's critical habitat provisions "perverse," contending they put the needs of bark beetles and fish over humans.

Cardoza said his Critical Habitat Reform Act would "strike a balance" between the goal of preserving species and the property rights of farmers, ranchers and homeowners.

"What's happening is this act is being used to stop any development, any progress through lawsuits, and that's not working for endangered species or the public at large," he said.

Pombo's seven-page position paper argues that the Endangered Species Act has provoked nuisance lawsuits by environmental groups out for financial gain, and pitted the government against farmers and homeowners. It says the law gives landowners an incentive to destroy species habitat in order to rid themselves of the burden of having to deal with the act's onerous regulations.

The paper also contends that the act has failed because few species have recovered from being endangered or threatened. Environmentalists say the law is meant as a safety net to keep endangered species from going extinct, and it's unrealistic to expect a species that is near extinction to recover quickly.

Over 1,200 plants and animals are now listed as threatened or endangered. The Fish and Wildlife Service says 39 have been taken off the list over the years - 15 because they recovered and the others because they went extinct or for technical reasons.

Erica Werner, Associated Press
Lawmakers Push to Change Conservation Law
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 27, 2004

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