More than three decades after the passage of the Endangered Species Act, some congressmen are calling for its reform, saying the "critical habitat" designation for these protected species is too broad and unclear.

Critical habitats are homes to endangered species and designated as essential to their survival. They are not allowed to be developed and owners of critical habitats are limited in what they can do with their property.

With strong support from the Bush administration, the House Resources Committee is now considering the Critical Habitat Reform Act of 2003 (search), which would allow the Interior Department more discretion in designating critical habitats for endangered species. The bill, which has broad Republican support, would allow the Fish and Wildlife Service (search) to take into account the economic impact on a community before it makes a designation.

Environmentalists aren't happy about the bill. Although some acknowledge problems with the Endangered Species Act (search), they say the business-friendly legislation is not written to protect the animals under threat.

"This legislation makes it far more difficult to protect critical habitat. From a lot of perspectives it is not a good faith effort at reforming the Endangered Species Act," said Betsy Loyless, vice president for policy for the League of Conservation Voters (search).

Because of the discretion given Interior Department officials and the role that economics would play, the bill "would effectively eliminate the role of critical habitat in protecting endangered species," Loyless told

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, 519 species of animals and 746 species of plants are listed as threatened or endangered and another 23 animal species and one plant species are currently proposed to be added to the list. Of those already on the list, 450 species have designated critical habitats.

In the last two years, the federal government has set aside 38 million acres of critical habitat, including three tracts of land each as big as Rhode Island — two for birds and one for a frog.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza (search), D-Calif., a self-described environmentalist, introduced the Critical Habitat Reform Act last July. His spokesman, Bret Ladine, said the bill does not change the goals of ESA.

"It's just a matter of making it more sensible," Ladine said. Currently, large tracts of land are set aside for "things most people have never seen or will see." Instead, we must designate "critical habitat in a way that takes into account everyone's needs: the species' needs, the community's needs. We need to do it in a way that makes sense for everyone."

Ladine acknowledged that a major motivation for the legislation is economic. Merced County, which lies in Cardoza's district, contains huge tracts of land that cannot be developed because they are designated as critical habitats. Ladine said the current regulations "severely limit development" in a county that is already economically disadvantaged.

Loyless did not claim that the ESA, as it currently stands, is perfect. "I know that there is a rationale for wanting to see the Endangered Species Act work better to protect species, but I don’t believe that this is the vehicle to do it."

She suggested that more funding go to setting aside critical habitats. "We really need to fund the program at hand. The Endangered Species Act is under-funded and under-budgeted."

Some Democrats on the House Resources Committee, such as Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, made similar calls for more funding during a committee hearing in April that was marked by vigorous debate between business advocates and environmentalists.

Fish and Wildlife Services officials say it would have more money available for critical habitats if it didn't have to spend so much of its annual budget fighting lawsuits over what land is protected and what is not.

"For well over a decade, the Service has been embroiled in a relentless cycle of litigation over its implementation of the listing and critical habitat provisions of the Act," testified Craig Manson, assistant secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks.

Manson added that the designation of critical habitats imposes often onerous requirements on federal agencies and landowners, or is perceived by them as doing so. He said contrary to LCV's charges, the Fish and Wildlife Service does not have enough discretion to determine where to put its resources.

Manson said more effective strategies for protecting endangered species include habitat conservation plans, conservation banking, voluntary agreements with landowners, incentive-based actions and private stewardship efforts by individuals and businesses.

"Their implementation provides far greater conservation benefits than the designation of critical habitat while avoiding the regulatory, economic, and social disadvantages of critical habitat designations," he said.

Environmental groups deride these arguments as intended to serve big business and landowners, not the species the ESA was designed to protect.

"Any proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act or its implementation, whether legislative or administrative, must ultimately be judged against that standard: Will it improve and ensure the conservation of habitat? When measured against this standard, H.R. 2933, the Critical Habitat Reform Act of 2003, fails miserably," testified Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife (search) and director of the Fish and Wildlife Service during the Clinton administration.

Ladine said it is unclear when the bill will be acted upon. He said Cardoza would like to see it get to the floor this year, though because this is an election year, that is likely to be difficult.