The House on Thursday passed legislation that could greatly expand private property rights under the environmental law that is credited with helping keep the bald eagle from extinction but also has provoked bitter fighting.
By a vote of 229-193, lawmakers approved a top-to-bottom overhaul of the 1973 Endangered Species Act (search), perhaps the nation's most powerful environmental law. The law has led to contentious battles over species such as the spotted owl, the snail darter and the red-legged frog.
The rewrite faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where Republican Lincoln Chafee (search) of Rhode Island, head of the panel that oversees the law, has expressed concerns about the House bill.
The bill would require the government to compensate property owners if steps to protect species thwarted development plans. It also would make political appointees responsible for some scientific determinations and would stop the government from designating "critical habitat," which limits development.
The changes were pushed through by the chairman of the House Resources Committee, GOP Rep. Richard Pombo (search). The California rancher contends the current rules unduly burden landowners and lead to costly lawsuits while doing too little to save plants and animals.
"You've got to pay when you take away somebody's private property. That is what we have to do," Pombo told House colleagues. "The only way this is going to work is if we bring in property owners to be part of the solution and to be part of recovering those species."
Many Democrats and moderate Republicans said Pombo's bill would eliminate important protections for species and clear the way for large handouts from the government to property owners.
The bill sets a "dangerous precedent that private individuals must be paid to comply with an environmental law," said Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the committee's top Democrat.
"What's next? Paying citizens to wear seat belts? ... This bill will not improve species' ability to recover," he said.
A White House statement on Thursday supported the bill. But it noted that payments to private property owners could have a "significant" impact on the budget.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that those payments would run less than $20 million a year. The bill's opponents predicted a much higher total.
The Fish and Wildlife Service says there are 1,268 threatened and endangered plants and animals in the United States. About a dozen have gone off the list over the years after they were determined to have recovered; nine have become extinct.
Pombo's bill would:
_Eliminate critical habitat. That is area now required to be designated when a species is listed and is protected from adverse actions by federal agencies. Instead, "recovery plans" for species, including designation of habitat, would have to be developed within two years. The recovery plans would not have regulatory force and the habitat would not be protected from federal actions.
_Specify that landowners with development plans are due answers from the interior secretary within 180 days, with a 180-day extension possible, about whether the development would harm protected species. If the government fails to respond in time, the development could go forward. If the government blocks the development, the landowner would be paid the fair market value of the proposed development.
_Give the interior secretary the job of determining what constitutes appropriate scientific data for decision-making under the law.
An alternative from a group of Democrats and moderate Republicans would have strengthened the recovery plans, eliminated the payments to landowners for blocked developments and created a scientific advisory board to assist the interior secretary. The proposal failed by a 216-206 vote.