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Pombo on verge of unveiling new species law

 Jun 29, 2005  Lodi News

Since coming to Congress in 1992, Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, has sought to change the Endangered Species Act - and now he may finally see the fruits of his labor.

Pombo's staff at the Resources Committee confirmed that Committee members will present an ESA reform bill by mid July.

According to Brian Kennedy, Pombo's Committee press secretary, the bill will include money or tax breaks for property owners who lose financially due to ESA enforcement, as well as a greater role for states and more rigorous demands on planners for species recovery. Pombo's name may or may not be on the bill, Kennedy said.

Such legislation has long been expected.

It comes in the wake of the defeat of two bills in the previous congressional session. Rep. Dennis Cardoza's, D-Merced, Critical Habitat Reform Act would have forced the Fish and Wildlife Service to give greater weight to economic factors when it designates critical habitat. Rep. Greg Walden's, R-Ore., Endangered Species Data Quality Act would have changed the standards for what types of scientific measurements can be used in designation habitat.

"I can't tell you about the language, but the spirit of both will be included in the bigger package," Kennedy said.

If the bill's authors really want to provide incentives and create better science, there might be hope for consensus, said Andrew Wetzler, senior attorney for the National Resources Defense Council.

However, Wetzler said the Cardoza and Walden bills were nothing more than attempts to roll back the ESA. The Walden bill in particular, he said, aimed to limit the types of data and population models scientists were allowed to use.

He also said he was worried about the timing of the bill.

Pombo appeared in February with Senators Lincoln Chaffee, R-R.I., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, to tout the need for ESA reform. The fact that Pombo's seeks to rush out a bill now, rather than to wait and see what the Senate comes up with, is probably a bad sign, Wetzler said.

Wetzler also said that Pombo and others have willfully represented the goal of the ESA by focusing on recovery numbers. While only a small percentage of endangered species have recovered, he said, the fact that 98 percent of the species are still around shows a spectacular success.

The ESA already calls for species recovery planning, he said. The average endangered species has been listed for only 15 years, Wexler said, but usually 50 years are needed for recovery.

"It's a little like walking into an emergency room and saying 'There's a bunch of sick people here. There must be something wrong with this hospital,'" Wetzler said.

In recent weeks, subcommittees in the resources department have held numerous hearings on the Act. This includes testimony by various business groups that the Act has harmed the efforts to increase energy supplies.

Property rights groups have long sought changes to the ESA. Earlier this month, a coalition of 53 groups began to circulate a letter in support of Pombo's ESA efforts. The letter includes the names of several prominent activists on the political right, including Grover Norquist, David Ridenour and Ted Nugent.

It charges that the ESA has weakened national security by placing portions of military bases off limits. It also cited Operation Gatekeeper, a proposal to put fences and surveillance cameras on a porous 14-mile section of the Mexican border.

The letter claimed that the project has been held up for nine years due to the presence of seven species of endangered birds in the area.

"They've long since forgotten about recovering species," said Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association. "They love it because it allows them to tie up land."

The ESA often has a negative effect on species, Cushman said, because many property owners make the economically rational decision to "shoot, shovel and shut up" when an endangered species is found on their land.

He cited tree farmers who remove underbrush that could serve as spotted owl habitat or cut pine trees before they're mature because they don't want endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers to move in.





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