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Time to do better Pombo introduces revised Endangered Species Act

Rep. Richard W. Pombo, R-Calif., introduced his long-awaited rewrite of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, saying it was “time to do better” by the plants and animals the law was designed to protect.

Pombo, chairman of the House Resources Committee, was joined by fellow West Coast Congressmen Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif.; Greg Walden, R-Ore.; and George Radanovich, R-Calif., at a press conference announcing the new legislation in Stockton, Calif., Sept. 19.

After the announcement, critics complained the new legislation would cripple the current Endangered Species Act and “punch loopholes in the law on behalf of greedy developers, oil companies and other special interests.” Pombo said the 1973 law simply has not done what it was intended to do.

“After three decades of implementation, the ESA has only recovered 10 of the roughly 1,300 species on its list,” he said. “What it has done instead is create conflict, bureaucracy and rampant litigation. It's time to do better. Without meaningful improvements, the ESA will remain a failed managed care program that checks species in but never checks them out.”

Pombo's bill, the Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act of 2005, promises to fix the current law by focusing on species recovery, providing incentives, increasing openness and accountability, strengthening scientific standards, creating bigger roles for state and local governments, protecting private property owners and eliminating dysfunctional critical habitat designations.

Besides Cardoza, Walden and Radanovich, other cosponsors of the new legislation include Reps. Marion Berry and Mike Ross of Arkansas, Joe Baca and Jim Costa of California, Henry Brown of South Carolina and Bennie Thompson of Mississippi.

“Over the 30 years since its introduction, the Endangered Species Act has gone far off course from its original intent,” said Rep. Cardoza. “Today, lawsuits and court mandates dictate species recovery, not science. This new bill puts more resources towards recovering species while at the same time creating transparency for those landowners whose land may be needed for species conservation.”

Walden said the new legislation would make the federal agencies charged with administering this law open up their process to the public.

“It's time to set standards to make sure the data they use represent the best scientific data available,” he noted. “It's time to reach out to private property owners and states to protect their rights and encourage their participation in recovery efforts. And its time to make sure no region of the country ever suffers again as the Klamath Basin did when faulty decisions by the government led to disaster.”

(Walden was referring to a long-running dispute in which Oregon farmers in the 9.5-million-acre Klamath Basin were denied the use of irrigation water because of efforts to protect the western yellow pond lily, the shortnose sucker, the lost river sucker and the Aleutian Canada goose.)

Radanovich said the Endangered Species Act has taught many lessons since its passage 32 years ago.

“As a result of the lessons we've learned, Chairman Pombo's bill includes language to better protect and recover species in need,” he said. “It also encourages landowners to safeguard species on their property. Instead of being punished, as they often are under the current ESA, property owners will be respected and provided incentives to protect species under this bill.”

Pombo, who held a hearing on the Endangered Species Act at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science in Jackson, Miss., last spring, said then that the law had fallen victim to unintended consequences, partisan politics and counter-productive lawsuits. “These forces have rendered the ESA a broken law that is in desperate need of updating and modernizing after 30 years of failure.”

Representatives of the Defenders of Wildlife claim Pombo's “fixes” would severely cripple the federal effort to recover endangered plants and animals.

“If Rep. Pombo's legislation were part of the original Endangered Species Act, the recovery of the bald eagle, grizzly bear, and peregrine falcon would have been extremely difficult if not impossible,” Rodger Schlickeisen, the organization's president, said.

“It runs counter to the very intent of the Endangered Species Act and flies in the face of Rep. Pombo's earlier professed desire to improve wildlife conservation.”

“Given Mr. Pombo's past statements about trying to make the Endangered Species Act work better, it's extremely disappointing to see him introduce a bill that does so much to eliminate opportunities for recovery of threatened and endangered wildlife,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and now executive vice president of the group.

While Pombo has frequently claimed that the 1973 law has been ineffective, resulting in less than 1 percent of listed species being recovered, Clark said the act has been “extraordinarily successful at preventing the extinction of our nation's precious wildlife.”

Since 1973, she said, only nine out of the 1,800 animals protected by the act have been declared extinct. “Rep. Pombo's legislation would put an end to that astonishing record of success and undermine any hope of protecting endangered plants and animals in the future.”

Clark contends that Pombo's bill:

  • Repeals critical habitat without providing adequate assurances that habitat necessary for recovery would be protected.
  • Undermines the requirement of federal agencies to ensure that their actions would not jeopardize the continued existence of listed plants or animals. Cuts wildlife experts out of the loop in determining whether agency actions would harm endangered plants and animals.
  • Puts road blocks in the way of the use of the “best available science” and limits the type of science that can be used for endangered species recovery.
  • Requires the federal government to pay landowners to not violate the law, setting a terrible precedent in regard to environmental protections. “This would create a financial windfall for unscrupulous developers by requiring the government to compensate them for the value of any activity they propose on their land which would result in a take of a listed plant or animal.”
  • Places endangered plants and animals at risk whenever the federal government fails to meet a 90-day deadline for telling developers whether their actions would take an endangered species. If the government misses the deadline, no matter what the reason, developers get a de facto exemption from the law and wildlife would suffer.
  • Eliminates the Endangered Species Committee, the Cabinet-level body created by Congress in 1978 to resolve truly irreconcilable conflicts between species conservation and development.

“At a time when our country is still reeling from the impacts of Hurricane Katrina, one has to wonder why reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act has become the immediate priority of Congressman Pombo and the Resources Committee,” said Clark.

Pombo scheduled a hearing on the bill, H.R. 3824, on Sept. 21.

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