WASHINGTON – The cowboy hat-wearing rancher who chairs the House committee in charge of environmental policy says he's finished trying to recast the Endangered Species Act (search) in one fell swoop.
Rep. Richard Pombo (search), R-Calif., says now he wants to take it on bit by bit.
"I think it's just a lot easier and a lot more practical to break it down," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. Pombo is entering his second year as chairman of the House Resources Committee (search).
His new approach worries environmentalists, who say the 30-year-old law never has been in more jeopardy.
"It's the death-of-a-thousand-cuts approach," said Bart Semcer, fish and wildlife policy specialist for the Sierra Club (search). "They know that they can't win by adopting a wholesale approach to attacking the Endangered Species Act, so they're launching sneak attacks, small pieces of legislation that they're hoping the public won't notice in order to undermine the law."
Pombo, who contends environmental regulations too often infringe on the rights of farmers and homeowners, said the endangered species law produces more lawsuits and property disputes than it provides protection for wildlife. It's a point he's argued since he was handed the task of rewriting the law in 1995, just his third year in Congress.
That effort never made it to the House floor. Subsequent attempts also went nowhere.
Pombo was tapped last year over more senior Republicans to chair the Resources Committee. After spending most of his first year in the job on other initiatives such as the new timber-cutting law, he's ready to return his focus to endangered species.
"We've been arguing over this for 10 years and haven't made any progress whatsoever. So I think that it's worth a shot," Pombo said.
Many Republicans and some conservative Democrats agree that the act could be improved.
"We should not keep parts of the act that are used only to subvert any growth and any progress being made," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a Democrat whose district is just south of Pombo's in California's Central Valley.
Most Democrats, however, are just as determined to protect the law as Pombo is to rewrite it.
"That's going to be a big test, there's no question about it. And it's difficult to predict right now what the outcome will be," said West Virginia Rep. Nick Rahall, the committee's senior Democrat. "Chairman Pombo has a history on this issue; he believes the law is sorely broken. ... I take the view that the law is relatively in good shape."
Rahall said he will gather support from leading Democrats and hopes moderate Republicans will join him, too.
"I think we can build an effective coalition that will block any wholesale revamping of the law itself," Rahall said. "We will be a formidable opponent."
The Endangered Species Act requires the government to use "the best scientific and commercial data available" in choosing animals and plants to list. Listed species are supposed to be protected from potentially harmful activities and can get designations of critical habitat on which more protections are given.
Over 1,200 plants and animals are listed as threatened or endangered. The Fish and Wildlife Service says 37 have been taken off the list over the years — 15 because they recovered and the others because they went extinct or for technical reasons.
Pombo said his first focus will be to add what he and the law's critics call "sound science" provisions. He says the requirement for the best available data is too vague and wants the law to demand empirical or peer-reviewed standards.
Next up, Pombo wants to tackle how critical habitats are designated.
One by one, Pombo's critics maintain, the elements add up to changing the entire Endangered Species Act.
"It's piecemeal obstructionism," said Betsy Loyless, vice president for policy of the League of Conservation Voters. "For Richard Pombo, it's about grinding things to a halt. And that's a harder process for environmentalists to point to."
Pombo is undeterred by environmentalists' complaints.
"There's nothing we could possibly do that would satisfy them," he said. "They keep saying the same things, and yet the problems are still there."