Legislators Working to Reshape Endangered Species Act

A Kemp's ridley turtle with a satellite tracking tag on its shell heads into the Gulf of Mexico. The species, listed as endangered in 1970, is recovering.
A Kemp's ridley turtle with a satellite tracking tag on its shell heads into the Gulf of Mexico. The species, listed as endangered in 1970, is recovering. (By Kevin Bartram -- Galveston County Daily News Via Associated Press)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 20, 2005

Lawmakers from both parties are pushing to transform the nation's approach to protecting imperiled species, making it tougher to add to the federal list of endangered animals and plants, and providing new incentives for landowners to protect crucial habitats.

A brief hearing yesterday kicked off the drive to retool one of the nation's best known and most controversial environmental laws, which currently protects about 1,800 species believed to be on the verge of extinction. Enacted in 1973, the Endangered Species Act has come under fire from both the left and the right.

Republicans and Democrats say they largely agree on what aspects of the act need work. Although they differ on how to fix them, they have engaged in a dialogue over the most problematic features. With a moderate Republican in charge of drafting the Senate bill, some said prospects for rewriting the law may be better than they have been in more than a decade.

"There is an increasing understanding on the part of people from all sides that the current situation is not working for their particular interest," said Sen. Michael D. Crapo (R-Idaho), who testified before the Senate fisheries, wildlife and water subcommittee. "There are enough people willing to work it out in a way that has not been there in the past."

For years, property owners have complained that the government has been too ready to declare species in trouble and place valuable land off-limits to development. Environmentalists, on the other hand, say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has moved too slowly in safeguarding struggling populations.

Informal negotiations began in December when John Leshy, who served as the Interior Department's top lawyer for eight years under President Bill Clinton, discussed prospects for revising the act with GOP officials during a Western Governors' Association meeting.

"The question is, were they sincere or were they just posturing? The jury's still out on that," said Leshy, who now teaches at the University of California Hastings College of Law. "Here, more than in most things, the devil's in the details."

Congress has amended the Endangered Species Act three times since its inception, but its broad outlines remained largely intact. In 1997 Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) brokered a bipartisan compromise to restructure the law, but Senate GOP leaders refused to hold a floor vote. Chafee's son Lincoln now chairs the subcommittee charged with overseeing the law and is hoping to build on his late father's legacy.

Areas of agreement include the idea of providing federal grants or tax incentives to landowners for maintaining key habitat for imperiled plants and animals. And both sides favor changing the process of designating critical habitat so that land-use restrictions would take effect only after federal scientists devise a formal recovery plan. That would ease the constraints on developing private property.

M. Reed Hopper, a principal attorney for the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, testified yesterday that the act exacts too high an economic cost because it "really does not contemplate protection of human needs."

Other proposals are more controversial. House Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.), who plans to introduce a sweeping revision of the act in about two weeks, wants to require more scientific studies before officials can list a species as endangered or threatened, a proposal likely to encounter stiff opposition from environmentalists.

"The science that's being used to make decisions really isn't good," Pombo said in an interview, adding that on the whole, the law "hasn't been successful in recovering species to sustainable numbers."

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