In its most important environmental decision in nearly two decades, the Supreme Court upheld the sweeping reach of the Endangered Species Act and ruled that federal officials can block development on private lands to protect the habitat of threatened animals.
The 6-3 decision rejects the timber industry’s claim that the 1973 law was intended merely to prohibit the killing of animals, but to shield their habitats from being destroyed.
Had the ruling gone the other way, bald eagles, spotted owls, salmon and other animals would be guarded only from direct harm, such as hunting and trapping, but not destruction of their breeding and feeding grounds.
The case - the first major environmental dispute to come before the newly conservative court - has been closely watched by environmentalists and landowners alike. And the impact of the decision reverberated from Southern California’s expensive coastal real estate to the Pacific Northwest’s oldgrowth forests to Florida’s salt marshes.
The ruling stands as the lone victory for Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and environmentalists since Republicans took control of Congress - and it is a critical one that resolves a long-standing controversy over the scope of federal efforts to safeguard almost 1,000 species.
Nevertheless, all sides acknowledge that the environmentalists’ celebration could be short-lived.
From coast to coast, loggers, urban developers, farmers and other landowners, trying to end the costly restrictions on use of their property, vowed Thursday to keep battling in Congress, as well as in the courts on other constitutional grounds.
“If anything, this decision strengthens the hand of those who want to bring long-overdue reforms to the Endangered Species Act,” said Rep. Wes Cooley, R-Ore. “Our priorities are way out of whack.”
“This decision,” added Bob L. Vice, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, “is the catalyst that will sweep needed reform to the forefront.”
To provide a safety net for wild animals and plants on the verge of disappearing, the Interior Department has long invoked the Endangered Species Act’s extraordinary power to block developers’ bulldozers, farmers’ plows and loggers’ chainsaws. But its implementation is frequently slow and confusing, especially in the West, where it has polarized environmentalists and landowners.
In their 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court justices referred to the proenvironment mindset of Congress in the 1970s and early 1980s, and indicated if a reversal of the 1973 law is warranted, it must come from Congress itself.
Speaking in the courtroom on Thursday, Justice John Paul Stevens quoted former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, who was buried that same day. Burger wrote in 1978 that Congress in drafting the law intended “to halt and reverse the trend toward species extraction, whatever the cost.”
Congress “entrusted the (Interior) secretary with broad discretion” to protect endangered wildlife, Stevens wrote in the majority opinion. “We are especially reluctant to substitute our views … for this.”
“We have always known the Endangered Species Act was good science, the court has validated that it is good law as well,” said John McCaull of the National Audubon Society.Nevertheless, In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia
said he believed Congress had not intended to impose “unfairness to the point of financial ruin - not just upon the rich, but upon the simplest farmer.” Also dissenting were the court’s two other most conservative members, Justices Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
Many members of Congress agree, and are attempting to revise portions of the act that involve private lands, which would render the court’s decision moot.
“Today’s decision will serve as a rallying cry for ESA reform from communities across the country that have been hurt by the current law,” said Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who has introduced a bill to eliminate most of the restrictions on private land.
The problem, he said, lay not with the court’s interpretation of the law, but with the law itself. A House task force established to consider changes in the Endangered Species Act is drafting a bill similar to Gorton’s, with the debate in the committees expected to begin in earnest next month.
But the movement to overhaul the nation’s premier conservation law, while strong and backed by many influential business groups and small landowners, is divisive in Congress. Republicans do not all agree on how far reform should go, and the conservatives might not have enough votes to override a veto that could come from President Clinton.
xxxx Finishing the session The Supreme Court ended its term Thursday with some long-awaited rulings: Endangered species: Said the government may prohibit the destruction of wildlife habitat on private land to protect endangered or threatened species. Redistricting: Ruled election districts drawn mainly to boost black voters’ clout are unlawful. Religion: Allowed public funding of a private religious activity, saying a student-run Christian magazine may be subsidized by a university.