Gilchrest angered by lack of scientists at hearing

March 19, 1995|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

Upset at what he sees as an unseemly rush to dismantle environmental regulations, Maryland Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest broke ranks with fellow Republicans last week over the fairness of a congressional hearing on the Endangered Species Act planned in his district.

Mr. Gilchrest, a former teacher whose 1st District straddles the Chesapeake Bay, threatened to resign from the House Resources Committee task force that is reviewing the controversial federal law.

He was angered because the chairman of the task force -- Rep. Richard W. Pombo, a California rancher -- refused to let him invite several scientists to testify about the need for preserving rare plants and animals.

The witnesses sought by Mr. Gilchrest included noted Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, Atlanta zoo director Terry Maple and the director of a Virginia wildlife clinic.

Mr. Gilchrest said he wanted the scientists to explain the importance of obscure plants and animals to the planet and society, especially in the pharmaceutical industry's search for new life-saving drugs.

Spurned by the committee's leaders, Mr. Gilchrest said he appealed directly to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who intervened to defuse the flap.

But the hearing, which was tentatively set for March 27 at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center near Laurel, has been put on hold. So have other congressional field hearings around the country intended to review federal wetlands regulations, species protections and property rights.

Environmentalists have complained that the hearings were being stacked" with farmers, fishermen and others critical of federal rules protecting endangered species and wetlands.

At the first one, held recently in Louisiana, an Oregon congressman angrily warned an environmentalist speaker to stay out of Oregon, where federal protection of the spotted owl is blamed for the loss of thousands of jobs in the timber industry.

A spokesman for Mr. Pombo said a second hearing is scheduled tomorrow near San Antonio, Texas. But future sessions may be curtailed because of congressional budget cuts and scheduling questions, said Mike Hardiman, the spokesman.

However, he defended the witness-selection process and said the goal of the hearings was to hear from "local people," not "self-anointed experts."

"That's all we hear from -- scientists, and inside-the-beltway . . . experts," said Mr. Hardiman. Residents and officials who have experienced the law's restrictions deserve "equal time," he said.

"You can't legislate with anecdotal stories," Mr. Gilchrest

countered, adding that some of the accounts he had heard about property owners being ruined by federal red tape were not borne out by investigation.

"That's not to say there's no problem with the Endangered Species Act," he said, "or that it hasn't been implemented overzealously. I believe it has."

The law could be made more flexible, he said, and offering landowners incentives rather than regulations might be a better approach.

But Mr. Gilchrest complained that many lawmakers seem bent on making wholesale changes in the 22-year-old law, "using a sledgehammer to kill an ant."

"To throw the whole thing out without even knowing what you've lost, that's the tragedy of this," he said.

Mr. Gilchrest said Mr. Gingrich agreed with his request for scientific testimony and promised him a chance to invite experts to any future hearing in Maryland's 1st District, which includes the Eastern Shore, northern Anne Arundel County and South Baltimore.

Mr. Gilchrest plans to decide in the next week whether he still wants to have a hearing, possibly in May.

He said he will remain on the task force -- at least for now. But if

further resistance develops, "I'm out of there," he said.

Mr. Gilchrest also vowed a campaign to "educate" his fellow lawmakers on the value of preserving rare species.

"There's a pretty big vacuum on this subject in Congress," he said. He already has written 40 members of both parties inviting them to join him in a bipartisan coalition seeking moderate changes in the law.

The episode offers a glimpse into the political turmoil on Capitol Hill, where moderates like Mr. Gilchrest -- a fiscal conservative with a strong "green" streak -- are finding it hard to cling to the middle in an increasingly polarized debate over environmental laws and regulations.

"I'm here to represent my district. I'm not here to be maneuvered into a corner," he said. While siding with the GOP leadership on much of its "Contract with America," Mr. Gilchrest dissented when the House recently passed a sweeping regulatory reform bill, mainly because it required government to pay landowners if their property values decline by 10 percent because of wetlands or endangered species restrictions.

Mr. Gilchrest said the people in his district, which includes many farming and fishing communities, "don't want a lot of government interference in what they do," but they also have "a strong sense of environmental issues."

"You know my biggest enemies?" Mr. Gilchrest said. "Extreme environmentalists. They want to manage [the planet] as though there were no people." However, he added, "the right wing wants to manage as though there are no animals."

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