HERE'S THE GOOD NEWS: Both Democrats and Republicans support reasonable reforms to the Endangered Species Act. Here's the bad news: Even more Democrats and Republicans want those reforms to include unlimited gifts of money from the federal government to developers who claim to be harmed by the act's provisions. As a result, the House has passed an updated version of the Endangered Species Act that is, even by the low standards of this Congress, an unusually loophole-ridden piece of environmental legislation.
Some of the bill's provisions will directly affect the animals in question. The bill repeals provisions that restricted the use of the pesticides that once nearly wiped out the bald eagle. It limits the consultative role of the Fish and Wildlife Service, and it replaces protections of the "critical habitat" endangered species need with much more vague restrictions. It redefines the notion of "best available science" so that it becomes easier to politicize.
But perhaps the biggest loophole in the bill is its creation of what is, in effect, a new entitlement program for landowners whose use of their property would somehow be restricted by the law. Many reformers have called for greater cooperation between landowners and the federal government on endangered species protection, up to and including compensation schemes. But this bill would -- according to the bipartisan group led by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), who crafted an alternative to it -- enable landowners to collect payment repeatedly for the same property; to collect payment even if their proposed development could be carried out elsewhere on the same property; and, by choosing their own appraisers, effectively to determine for themselves the amount of money the federal government owes them. One lawyer who has examined the bill says that any attorneys who don't advise their clients to repeatedly demand compensation from the government for restrictions related to endangered species would be negligent.
There's a chance that the Senate, when it takes up this issue, will craft a more reasonable version of this bill. There's also a chance that anything reasonable would be eviscerated in conference. Perhaps those in Congress who oppose these objectionable provisions would be best advised to wait, let the contents of the bill become known, and hope that public outrage kills it off.