For the first time since 1988, the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday passed legislation that would alter the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The bill, introduced by a longtime opponent, was pushed through at a whirlwind pace, and critics say it will weaken protections of species.
Representative Richard Pombo (R-CA) has made reform of the act a priority since coming to Congress in 1993. He and other critics say it has caused economic harm to landowners while not adequately helping endangered species recover. Becoming chair of the House Resources Committee in 2003 gave him the clout he needed. Last week he used that influence to win committee approval of his bill 4 days after it was introduced and 1 day after its only hearing--a pace that some members of Congress, and officials at the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), said precluded adequate analysis of the changes. Yesterday, the House approved it by a vote of 229 to 193.
The bill (HR 3824) contains several major changes in the 32-year-old ESA. It would eliminate so-called critical habitat provisions, land or water that the FWS designates as necessary for a species to recover. The designation brings several legal protections into place, but it also generates many lawsuits. Pombo's bill would also require the FWS to quickly evaluate proposed projects that might harm an endangered species. If the agency doesn't respond within 180 days, the projects would automatically be approved. Finally, if FWS determines that land can't be developed or otherwise altered because it would harm a species, then the agency must compensate landowners for the foregone value of the project.
All these ideas have raised concerns. Environmentalists worry that loss of critical habitat will weaken protection, that the FWS's long backlog will result in harmful projects going forward, and that the compensation scheme would bankrupt the FWS.
In response to Pombo's bill, Representatives Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), chair of the House Science Committee, George Miller (D-CA), and several others proposed a floor amendment that would avoid these concerns by not giving automatic approval to projects nor compensating landowners. The amendment would have abolished critical habitat, but replaced it with a similar and enforceable type of habitat designation. Although he lost by a vote of 206 to 216, Boehlert said he thought the slim margin of defeat "showed the Senate that the House would be willing to pursue moderate reforms of the Endangered Species Act."
The Senate plans to work on a companion bill but probably not until next spring. The subcommittee responsible for ESA is chaired by Senator Lincoln Chafee (R-RI), a moderate who has expressed reservations about making significant changes to the act.