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Wisconsin Agriculturist

Endangered Species Act revamp in crosshairs of opposing groups

It has been called by some, “the worst law ever to be enacted by Congress,” taking control of private lands out of the hands of owners, wreaking economic hardship for agriculture, timber, and other industries, and hamstringing the construction of schools, hospitals, and other facilities.

The Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973 with the aim of protecting plants, animals, fish, insects, snakes, and other species threatened with extinction, has cost taxpayers billions of dollars, created a thriving lawsuit industry, and has resulted in the de-listing of only 30 or so of the 1,300 species on the list.

This spring, the Senate is expected to consider the Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act of 2005, passed by the House last September to address some of the abuses of private property and other shortcomings in the original act.

The measure is in the Senate Fisheries, Wildlife, and Water Subcommittee, chaired by Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I. He has said he won't take up the bill until he receives a report from a panel of experts, the ESA Working Group, made up of representatives from environmental groups, industry, attorneys, government, and others.

The ESA Working Group is the creation of the Keystone Center, a Colorado-based non-profit organization whose mission “is to develop solutions to societal issues through the innovative use of deliberative frameworks, inclusive processes, and analytical scientific information.”

Critics say its interests are more closely aligned with those in the environmental movement and large companies than with the average landowner whose private property rights are being trampled.

The Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act (TESRA) is, says its author, Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., an effort to add sensible private property protections and other changes to the endangered species law — most notably, it would require the federal government to pay landowners for restrictions on property use due to the presence of endangered species.

For more than three decades, farmers and other property owners have been incensed that land harboring an endangered creature was rendered basically useless because of ESA restrictions, the violation of which could result in enormous fines, and even jail sentences.

The ESA puts “flies, beetles, rats, and shellfish before people,” Congressman Pombo says. “The bottom line is that the act is in desperate need of an update.” He says he wants to turn the tables and make cooperators of the farmers, ranchers, and other private property owners who hold the majority of the land on which endangered species are found. “The best way to conserve natural resources is to give society an economic reason to protect them,” he says.

He has been excoriated by the environmental movement. The Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund dubbed him the Wildlife Villain of the Year, “far and away the most anti-conservation member of Congress.” The bill would be “a windfall for developers,” others contend.

Pombo says he'll keep up the fight to revamp the ESA, but he faces a legion of opposition, including former Congressman Pete McCloskey, co-author of the original ESA, who says he's so outraged he is going to move into Pombo's district to run against him.

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