WASHINGTON – A House committee on Thursday approved a sweeping rewrite of the Endangered Species Act (search) that hands major new rights to property owners while limiting the federal government's ability to protect plant and animal habitat.
The bill by House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (search), R-Calif., bars the government from establishing "critical habitat" for species where development is limited, and sets deadlines for property owners to get answers from the government about whether their development plans would hurt protected species.
If the government doesn't answer in time, the development could go forward. If the government blocks a development, the property owner would be compensated.
The bill "will place a new emphasis on recovery and eliminates dysfunctional critical habitat provisions," Pombo said. "It's about a new era in protecting species and protecting habitat at the same time we protect property owners."
Pombo's committee approved the bill on a 26-12 vote, over objections from some Democrats and moderate Republicans who said it would disfigure the landmark 32-year-old law that environmentalists credit with preserving species like the bald eagle and California sea otter.
"It is a drastic mistake to eliminate the provisions that have to do with the protection of habitat for endangered species," said Rep. Jim Saxton (search), R-N.J. "It is my opinion that the Endangered Species Act is 99 percent about protecting critical habitat."
Saxton offered an amendment to restore critical habitat protections to the bill, but it failed on a voice vote.
The bill now goes to the full House, where Pombo says he has a commitment from Republican leaders to schedule a floor vote as early as next week. About a decade ago, Pombo failed to get the House to approve a rewrite of the Endangered Species Act, but he said he anticipates success this time.
Even if it passes the House, the bill has an uncertain future in the Senate.
Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., a moderate who chairs the wildlife subcommittee of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has concerns about removing critical habitat from the Endangered Species Act, a spokesman said.
Conservatives and property-rights supporters like Pombo disagree bitterly with environmentalists and many Democrats about whether the Endangered Species Act has been a success. Pombo often notes that only about 15 of 1,830 threatened and endangered species have been taken off the list because they've recovered. Supporters of the law counter that an even tinier number — nine— have gone extinct.
The act is "a safety net for wildlife that's edging toward extinction," said Michael Hirshfield, chief scientist at Oceana, an ocean and marine wildlife protection group.
But even some supporters agree that changes are needed, particularly to critical habitat. Because the law requires critical habitat to be designated at the same time a species is listed as endangered or threatened, Fish and Wildlife officials say they often have too little information to make a good decision.
As a result, critics say, critical habitat is established without much thought, and often not until an environmental group sues to make it happen. A much-criticized California proposal would set aside 4.1 million acres — or parts of 28 of the state's 58 counties — for the red-legged frog.
The bill was amended to address concerns from Assistant Interior Secretary Craig Manson, head of the Fish and Wildlife Service, and others, that the government wouldn't have enough time to respond to landowners seeking determinations about whether planned developments would hurt species. Pombo's original bill set a 90-day deadline; the amended version gives the government up to a year.
Eight committee Democrats joined Pombo in supporting the bill; two Republicans voted no.