Setting the stage for the most sweeping restructuring of endangered species protections in three decades, the House Resources Committee yesterday approved legislation that would strengthen the hand of private property owners and make it harder for federal officials to set aside large swaths of habitat for imperiled plants and animals.
Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.), who has sought to revamp the Endangered Species Act for more than a decade, said the bill would make the landmark 32-year-old law more effective.
"The whole underlying premise of what we're trying to do is recover species," Pombo said, adding that his measure would ensure "individual property owners are not forced to shoulder the financial burden of conserving endangered species for all Americans."
GOP leaders are eager to move the bill and it is expected to pass by a comfortable margin next week. The question remains whether Senate Republicans, who have begun hearings on the issue but have yet to introduce legislation, can pass a bill that would allow the two chambers to reach a compromise next year.
Many Democrats, as well as some Republicans and an array of environmental groups, have voiced concern about Pombo's measure and suggested it would not pass as it now stands.
The measure, which the panel approved 26 to 12 with eight Democrats voting aye, would require the government to compensate landowners if it declared some of their property off-limits to development to protect federally listed species, and to decide such cases within 180 days.
Real estate developers and property owners have hailed the bill as a long overdue rebalancing of the law, while environmentalists slammed it as undermining critical protections. Critics of the current law note that only a handful of the roughly 1,800 plants and animals listed over the past 30 years have fully recovered, while supporters counter that an equally small number have gone extinct during that period.
"Even schoolchildren know you can't protect plants and animals if you don't protect the places where they live," said Susan Holmes, senior legislative representative at Earthjustice, an advocacy group.
But Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association, of Battleground, Wash., said yesterday's action showed that private property owners are winning the political argument over endangered species.
The bill authorizes federal grants for property owners who voluntarily take steps to protect species, and would pay them for lost business profits on land the government sets aside for endangered and threatened plants and animals. It also would allow the interior secretary to set a scientific standard for declaring a species threatened or endangered, rather than asking outside scientists to make judgments on a case-by-case basis.
"I'm optimistic that enough people will realize after 31 years, the failure rate [of species recovery] can't be tolerated, and there needs to be some changes," Cushman said.
Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.), who chairs the Senate subcommittee charged with overseeing endangered species law, said yesterday he will not decide how to proceed until he hears back from an advisory group of environmentalists, landowners and government officials meeting in Keystone, Colo.
The House, Chafee said, "is moving quickly," adding that once the Keystone group reports to the Senate in 2006, he would be comfortable drafting a bill. Offering financial incentives to landowners will be key, he added. "If you care about protecting private property rights and protecting species, it's going to revolve around funding issues," Chafee said.
Pombo went out of his way yesterday to accommodate some Democrats' amendments during the committee's deliberations, though many remained skeptical because of the speeded-up timetable. The details of Pombo's bill only became public on Monday.
When the chairman accepted an amendment by Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) restoring language that Pombo had deleted from the current law, the Democrat remarked, "I've spent seven years trying to figure out how to get Pombo to yield on an amendment, and that moment has arrived," prompting laughter from his colleagues.
Still, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) said he could not back Pombo's proposal without scrutinizing the legislative language in detail.
"We've got to know exactly what we're doing," Miller said. "This is a big deal."