The House passed legislation yesterday that could greatly expand private-property rights under the Endangered Species Act, the 1973 law that is credited with helping keep the bald eagle from extinction but that has also provoked bitter opposition.
By a vote of 229 to 193, lawmakers approved a revision of the act, perhaps the nation's most powerful environmental law. The law has led to battles over species such as the Northern spotted owl, the snail darter and the red-legged frog.
The rewrite faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.), head of the subcommittee that oversees the law, has expressed concerns about the House bill.
The bill would require the government to compensate property owners if measures to protect species thwart development plans. It would also give political appointees the power to make some scientific determinations and stop "critical habitat" designations, which limit development.
The changes were pushed through by House Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo (R). The California rancher contends that the current rules unduly burden landowners and lead to costly lawsuits while doing too little to save plants and animals.
Many Democrats and moderate Republicans said Pombo's bill would eliminate important protections for species and lead to large government handouts to property owners. A White House statement yesterday supported the bill. But it noted that payments to property owners could have a "significant" impact on the budget.
The Fish and Wildlife Service says there are 1,268 threatened and endangered plants and animals in the United States.