For six years, the federal Endangered Species Act has been on probation, limping along on a budget renewed in Congress every year while lawmakers try to come up with a new law that pleases conservationists and conservatives alike.
What's new this year is legislation
introduced by Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho. Although no
environmental group fully supports his Endangered Species Recovery
Act, introduced last year, some leading conservationists say it's
at least workable. The National Governors' Association committee on
natural resources is behind the bill. The Clinton administration
has given the bill its blessing and Interior Secretary Bruce
Babbitt is trying to sell it to the public.
observers give the bill at best a 50 percent chance of getting to a
vote. And that, says lobbyist Chris Williams of the World Wildlife
Fund in Washington, D.C., "is as close as we've gotten to pleasing
both sides." The Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense
Fund also said they are willing to work with the Kempthorne
But the bill has reopened divisions within
the environmental movement. Scientists representing 11 scientific
societies published a full-page ad in The New York Times on Feb.
20, calling for the undoing of habitat conservation plans, a
regulatory change added to the ESA in 1982. The provision allows
private landowners and federal agencies to negotiate plans to
protect species, while accommodating some land development (HCN,
"To limit risks of extinction," the
scientists said, "no private or public agency action should
negatively modify habitat occupied by a threatened, endangered or
The letter, says Fraser
Shilling, a biologist at the University of California, Davis, who
helped write it, was aimed at the Kempthorne bill and at an even
more environmentally friendly bill in the House introduced by Rep.
George Miller, D-Calif. The Miller bill more explicitly limits land
uses - building construction, farming and logging for example -
which threaten species on private land. But both bills still
recognize habitat conservation plans and the right of landowners to
destroy some habitat in order to develop their
The downside of HCPs, adds Shilling, is
that they don't flatly require habitat recovery. "This whole
process," he says of the two bills, "is a way of managing for
David Wilcove of the Environmental
Defense Fund fired off an e-mail reply to one of the signatories,
Utah State University biologist James MacMahon, president of the
Ecological Society of America, asking him to reconsider his
position. Wilcove argued that the scientists' attack on HCPs is
more a threat than a help to endangered species on private lands.
He wrote that landowners, to avoid federal use restrictions, would
simply return to not reporting endangered species on their land or
they would deliberately destroy species to avoid
To date, however, no scientist who
signed the letter has withdrawn
What makes the Kempthorne bill
especially attractive to people like Wilcove and Chris Williams is
that it offers incentives, such as tax breaks, to get private
landowners to actively participate in species protection. Michael
Bean, an EDF wildlife biologist, says this feature is critical
because 80 percent of endangered species habitat is on private
But the bill's boosters also concede its
weaknesses. For one thing, say Williams and Bean, it does not
include funding for implementing the incentives. The bill also
complicates the process of listing new species by requiring
additional economic impact analyses.
endeavored to fix the Kempthorne bill," says Bean. "And those who
want to kill it without realistic process are making a big roll of
the dice that may put many endangered species (on private lands) at
very great peril."
Still, other conservation
groups - like the Native Forest Council of Eugene, Ore., and
Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, D.C. - condemn the Kempthorne
and Miller bills.
"(The bills) are an
abomination," says Tim Hermach of the Native Forest Council. He
calls HCPs an "immoral" tool of compromise. The only alternative,
he adds, is a bill that provides for swift listing of species and
extensive protection programs without regard to property rights.
"We cannot lose any more species," Hermach says. "There are
thousands of species behind in analyses and it will take 60 years
to catch up."
Meanwhile, Senate Republican
majority leader Trent Lott's proposed amendments to the Kempthorne
bill remain a major question. They would allow federal officials
less control over habitat designation and less control over public
comment when listing new species. The Kempthorne bill is now locked
in three-way negotiations between the White House and Sens.
Kempthorne and Trent Lott, R-Miss.
No one expects
the Miller bill to go anywhere, and for the Kempthorne bill,
conservationists have faint hopes. "Every day," says Chris
Williams, "the Kempthorne bill's chances are getting slimmer and
Peter Chilson is HCN
* Sen. Dirk Kempthorne's office at
* Tim Hermach and the Native Forest
Council at 541/688-2600;
* David Wilcove and the
Environmental Defense Fund at