WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of House members Thursday introduced legislation to overhaul the Endangered Species Act, once regarded as one of the nation's most popular environmental laws but now a lightning rod for critics who see it as an egregious example of regulatory overreaching by the federal government.
The bill, drafted by a GOP task force, calls for the government to compensate private property owners for the lost use of their lands and would require additional scientific review before the government can list a species as endangered.
It also would establish incentive programs to encourage property owners to conserve critical habitat and shift more responsibility to the states and property owners to work out recovery plans for threatened species and their ecosystems.
In general, the bill's sponsors say they seek to bring back into balance a well-meaning law that has been overzealously administered.
Staunch environmentalists say the overhaul would gut the landmark 1973 law.
Rep. George Miller of Martinez, Calif., the former Democratic chairman of the House Resources Committee, called the bill "an out-and-out effort by extremist anti-environmentalists to destroy a crucial law."
In recent years, the law has been attacked by property-rights advocates, developers and their allies in Congress--mainly Republicans and conservative Democrats, about 15 of whom joined a press conference to introduce the long-awaited legislation.
Once lauded as the salvation of the bald eagle and the grizzly bear, the law now often thwarts individuals and businesses from using their property in order to protect little-known birds, rodents and insects, critics say.
Among the many controversies the law has spawned are battles over the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest, the red-cockaded woodpecker in the Southeast and the gnatcatcher in Orange and San Diego counties.
California Republican Rep. Richard Pombo of Tracy, who led the task force that developed the legislation, said the Endangered Species Act is broken and needs replacement.
"People are terrified that they are going to find an endangered species on their property and are destroying habitat before it becomes inhabited by these species," Pombo said at a press conference to introduce the legislation, co-authored by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the House Resources Committee. "This bill creates incentives to encourage property owners to host endangered species. It is better for both species and people than the current act."
Despite the crowded legislative agenda looming over Congress, Pombo said the House GOP leadership has promised to bring the overhaul bill to the floor.
Similar measures have been introduced in the Senate, and the bills in both houses are expected to move near the top of the House and Senate committee agendas.
A host of environmental groups condemned the legislation.
"This bill would roll back the progress we have made under the ESA in saving species and ecosystems for 22 years," said Jim Jontz, director of the Endangered Species Coalition in Washington. "Young and Pombo will take away from the American people one of the strongest conservation laws in the world."
Many conservation groups noted that recent polls have shown strong public support for laws protecting the environment.
"Under the guise of reform, the Pombo program would essentially kill habitat and species protection . . . and replace it with the most extreme version of the pave-it-don't-save it mentality," said William L. Rukeyser of the California Biodiversity Alliance in Sacramento. "That's what Californians have rejected. They want protection of habitat and do not want wall-to-wall development of the state."
Environmentalists are particularly concerned that the Young/Pombo bill will undermine the goal of habitat protection as the key to species recovery.
Since 1975, the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service has included habitat modification as "harmful" to endangered species, and in June the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that standard.
The Young/Pombo bill would define "harm" as direct action against a species that causes physical injury--not habitat modification--and would allow permits for activities that have minimal environmental effects.
The bill's sponsors--95 so far, with hopes of 150--contend that excessive enforcement has poisoned the atmosphere for reauthorization of the law in its present form.
Young issued a warning to the environmental groups: "If you persist in wanting to maintain the status quo, the [reauthorization of the] act will fail. There is widespread feeling that this act has been misused."
The law's critics on Capitol Hill have already taken some potshots. A moratorium on new federal listings of species as endangered or threatened was enacted in April as part of a supplemental defense spending bill.
A bill reforming the federal regulatory process passed the House in March, requiring federal officials to compensate private landowners whose property values diminish by 20% or more because of regulatory actions taken under the Endangered Species Act and some other environmental bills.
A similar provision is in the Young/Pombo bill.
Pombo said that he has kept House Speaker Newt Gingrich apprised of the task force recommendations and that the Speaker supports "the ideas we put forth."