The decades-long blood feud over wildlife protection moved closer to all-out political war Thursday as congressional conservatives unveiled plans to dramatically revise the Endangered Species Act, the nation’s most powerful and controversial environmental law.
Under a proposal drafted by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., and endorsed by more than 90 House members, the federal government no longer would be required to protect every plant and animal that is on the brink of extinction and could choose to let some wild things die off.
The proposal also would make it easier for most private landowners to develop their land as they wish, regardless of the effect on endangered wildlife. The government could not block development in areas that shelter rare plants and animals unless it pays the landowner or buys the land outright.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, chairman of the Resources Committee, said he hopes to push the legislation toward floor action as quickly as possible, but it was uncertain whether the full House would take up the bill this year. The Senate is considering similar legislation.< Among backers of the legislation are Republican Reps. George Nethercutt of Spokane and Richard “Doc” Hastings of Pasco.
Hastings and Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, both served on the task force that produced the legislation. But Chenoweth has yet to sign on to the bill.
The government also would be required to balance the benefits of wildlife protection against the impacts on people, including jobs that may be lost and resources such as lumber, minerals and crops that may never reach consumers.
One provision would end most protections for dolphins, sea turtles and other endangered marine animals that die in fishermen’s nets by exempting “incidental” killings at sea of protected creatures other than fish.
Another would exempt state water projects from the law. A recent study by scientists from the Smithsonian Institution, Stanford University and two conservation groups found that dams and other water projects are the single greatest cause of wildlife endangerment.
Every state in the nation would be affected by changes to the law, though the impact would be greatest in Florida, Hawaii, Alaska and the West, where the number of endangered plants and animals is highest and the amount of land that could potentially shelter them runs into the millions of acres. In Hawaii, for example, every county in the state is habitat for at least one endangered species.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt immediately denounced the proposal, calling it a “repeal” of the Endangered Species Act.
“If Noah had to follow all the rules in this bill, he wouldn’t have needed an ark,” Babbitt said. “He could have fit all the animals he was allowed to save in a canoe.”
But Hastings said the reforms would improve wildlife protection by restoring public confidence in a law that landowners consider radical and unfair.
“If somebody has private property right now, there’s no incentive for them to ensure the species will survive - you might just turn your back and step on it,” Hastings said.
A coalition of conservationists, health care advocates, civil rights organizations and liberal religious groups sided with the administration, while industries and some labor unions backed the conservative proposal, setting the stage for an October showdown on the House floor.
A similar bill introduced in the Senate has prompted threats of a presidential veto.
Pombo’s proposed changes would effectively eliminate the Interior Department’s broad powers to control land uses wherever endangered wildlife is found. Those powers have made the law one of the country’s most loathed and most loved laws - the favorite tool of conservationists who have used it to block hosts of projects they oppose, the scourge of businesses and blue-collar workers who blame it for woes ranging from falling jobs in the lumber business to rising prices for California crops.