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Pombo hearings start on environmental law


For the first time since seizing control of a key congressional committee last year, a Tracy congressman today will hold hearings to launch his latest drive to water down the nation's most powerful wildlife protection law.

Rep. Richard Pombo is among the Endangered Species Act's fiercest critics and for the past year has been the head of the committee that oversees that law.

Today's hearing will focus on the act's requirement that the federal government protect habitat along with endangered species. The bill by Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, would force the government to more thoroughly consider the economic consequences of critical habitat before designating that habitat for protection.

Pombo also wants to move a separate bill that would raise the scientific standard that federal agencies must meet before taking actions on behalf of imperiled wildlife.

Neither of those provisions is as ambitious as the sweeping reforms Pombo pushed nearly a decade ago after the GOP won control of the House of Representatives. At that time, Pombo was one of two congressmen selected by the GOP leadership to propose revisions to the law, but what they came up with proved so sweeping and controversial that efforts to amend the law were killed.

This time around, Pombo is taking a piecemeal approach.

"The chairman was looking at areas where there was the most consensus, or at least the potential for consensus," said Pombo spokesman Brian Kennedy.

Environmentalists are confident that no changes to the law will pass in this election year but say Pombo's hostility to one of their favorite laws and his position as chairman of the Resources Committee are a continuing threat.

"Any legislation that Mr. Pombo seeks to move is a serious threat to the act," said Robert Irvin of the World Wildlife Fund. "This is the first all-out effort on his part (since 1995) to amend the act."

In a seven-page report released in advance of today's hearings, Pombo called the act a broken law that is "in desperate need of updating and modernizing after 30 years of failure."

The report said only 12 of the more than 1,300 species protected under the law have recovered to where protections could be lifted.

Pombo says the law too often put the interests of animals over people, but some of the examples he cites where that conflict has caused problems are disputed by government officials and scientists.

One example frequently cited by Pombo involves a disastrous Delta flood near Marysville in 1997. According to Pombo, work was delayed on a weak levee over concerns for a protected beetle called the valley longhorn elderberry beetle.

Interior Department officials during the Clinton administration discounted that version of the story at the time, saying the flooding was due to near-record rainfall and aging levees.

More recently, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers repeated that point.

"Their feeling (the Army's civil engineers) is the issue of the beetles and all is really kind of irrelevant," said corps spokesman Dave Killam.

Killam said beetle concerns do occasionally delay projects but that such delays were not to blame for the 1997 flood.

"The real issue is the levees are 100 years old. They were designed by farmers," Killam said. "They're just piles of dirt on top of piles of dirt."

Kennedy, Pombo's spokesman, said the Corps response was just "the Army Corps defending the Army Corps."

He also read portions of a statement from a California state official in the 1990s that appeared to back Pombo's version of the story, but he refused to provide a full copy of the statement.

The second example where Pombo said the law unreasonably favors wildlife over people was the 2001 crisis in the Klamath River basin, where decisions by federal officials to shut farmers' water supplies off led to bankruptcies and severe local economic problems.

Despite the seriousness of the impact on the farmers, the water releases benefited downstream tribes and salmon fishermen, environmentalists say.

Pombo's report criticized the decisions to shut off the farmers' water, citing the work of a committee of the National Academy of Sciences, which, according to Pombo, found that those decisions had "no sound scientific basis."

One member of that committee of scientists took issue with that interpretation.

"Let me make it perfectly plain: the National Academy of Sciences report did not fault the Endangered Species Act," said Jeffrey Mount, a UC Davis professor who helped write the report. "That was not the issue."

"Pombo is taking our interpretation one step further," Mount said. "Never did we say it was unnecessary to shut off the water to the farmers."

The committee did criticize federal agencies' exclusive focus on controlling releases from a particular lake, and NAS committee chairman William M. Lewis Jr. said in an e-mail Tuesday that there was no sound scientific basis for some of those actions.

But Lewis added that the committee also said that the agencies had the prerogative to use their best professional judgment to protect fish, even if they did not have adequate scientific information available to justify their actions.

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