Habitat law faces revision

Change to endangered species act offered

September 20, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

Fourteen members of Congress unveiled legislation yesterday that would revise the Endangered Species Act by eliminating critical-habitat protections and providing compensation to property owners.

California Rep. Richard W. Pombo, the Republican chairman of the House resources committee, said the changes are necessary because the 32-year-old law is too hard on landowners and spawns excessive litigation.

"The Endangered Species Act is not working for its stated purpose, to recover endangered species," Pombo said. "Seventy-seven percent of all listed species have achieved zero to 25 percent of their recovery goals."

The bill was condemned by environmental groups, which said Pombo and his allies are trying to dismantle a popular law that has proven successful at protecting bald eagles, gray wolves and dozens of other threatened animals.

Conflict over the law flared up in Maryland in June when a group of waterfront homeowners in Cecil County complained that they weren't allowed to build an erosion control wall along their beach because it was critical habitat for puritan tiger beetles, a threatened species.

Andrew Wetzler, senior staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the House proposal would eliminate legal safeguards for animals while handing taxpayer dollars to wealthy developers as grants for not killing endangered species.

"This would completely gut the Endangered Species Act," said Wetzler. "It would eliminate protections for the places where endangered species live, and it would repeal agency regulations that protect hundreds of species from being threatened or killed."

A hearing on the proposal is scheduled for 10 a.m. tomorrow before the House resources committee, with a committee vote expected as early as Thursday and a vote by the full House sometime this fall, said Brian Kennedy, spokesman for the committee.

Pombo, bill co-sponsor Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a Democrat from California, and others have attempted to revise the Endangered Species Act in past years. But this is by far the most wide-ranging effort launched, according to sponsors and critics.

Among the proposals:

To repeal the critical-habitat protection requirements in current law, which limit construction on land the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deems necessary for the survival of a listed endangered species.

These prohibitions would be replaced by a more cooperative planning process that environmentalists complain has no enforcement mechanism.

Financial compensation to private property owners for the fair market value of any loss of use of their land to protect species.

The creation of a federal grant program to promote voluntary conservation of listed animals by awarding money to landowners who agree not to kill species at risk.

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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