Will the real Mr. Pombo please stand up?

Rep. Richard Pombo, known as the Jerry Falwell of the property-rights movement, has threatened to dynamite the nation’s bedrock environmental laws. Now, he says, he’s learning to compromise.

  • The many faces of Richard Pombo

    Chad Crowe
  • Richard Pombo with the white hat he wore to congress in 1992.

  • California Rep. Richard Pombo, R, has toned down both his look and his rhetoric. He's given up his white cowboy hat and says he's willing to work with his longtime opponents

    San Francisco Chronicle
  • This Land is Our Land

  • From the Tracy High School yearbook, Richard Pombo, center, as a sophomore in the auto shop club

  • Pombo's senior portrait from the 1979 yearbooki

  • Richard Pombo on his family's ranch in Tracy, California

    Tribune Media Services
 

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The crusader

Richard Pombo got his start in public life in 1990, when he ran for a seat on the Tracy City Council. Much to his surprise, he says, he won.

He didn’t stay in local politics for long, however. Redistricting triggered by the 1990 Census created a new congressional seat that included Tracy, and in 1991, Pombo ran as a Republican, winning by just 2 percentage points. His life was transformed overnight.

Just 29 years old, Pombo hit the national stage, a strapping cattleman in a white cowboy hat and pencil-thin mustache. His timing couldn’t have been better.

Republicans were about to seize the majority in the House. The new House speaker, Newt Gingrich, soon claimed the spotlight with his "Contract with America," a controversial agenda of term limits, tort reform, welfare cutbacks and harsh criminal sentencing. Republicans hungered for outside-the-Beltway thinkers, and Pombo’s cowboy-hat conservatism made him a natural darling of the new movement. He became friends with Gingrich, won seats on the Resources and Agriculture committees, and began to clamor for what became his obsession: property rights and the reform of the Endangered Species Act.

This Land is Our Land was Pombo’s manifesto. A Sierra magazine reviewer called it "carelessly cranked-out … slanted, self-righteous and self-serving." But its underlying philosophy struck a chord with those conservatives who believed environmental laws were stomping on personal liberties.

In the book, Pombo attacked what he called the "eco-federal coalition," a cabal of tree-huggers and overzealous regulators who seek to lock up land for obscure endangered species. "Eco-leaders are used to winning their fights with like-minded judges in the courtrooms and like-minded bureaucrats in Washington," he wrote. "Their victims, however, are everywhere — people whose way of life was threatened by activists and bureaucrats who couldn’t tell a salmon from a salesman."

He called for a return to a literal interpretation of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which states in part, "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." He ridiculed Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas’ comment, from a landmark 1954 case: "It is within the power of the Legislature to determine that the community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacious as well as clean, well-balanced as well as carefully patrolled."

Yet for all his saber-rattling, Pombo has accomplished little as a legislator. In his 12-plus years in the House, he has passed only eight bills into law. Few of them have had any national significance. Eleven times, he has proposed legislation to rewrite the Endangered Species Act, arguing that the law amounts to a "taking" of private property rights, because it sometimes restricts what owners can do with their land. All failed. One was so extreme that even Gingrich shot it down.

Despite his track record, however, Pombo considers himself successful.

"When I got here 12 years ago, property rights were not even in consideration when Congress was drafting bills," he told the National Journal last year. "Now, any time you have a land-use bill come through the House, the protection of property rights is always part of the debate. We’ve moved the ball considerably."

And the alliances Pombo has formed over the years with Republican power brokers have now put him in a position of major influence. He was appointed Resources Committee chairman in January 2003, following the retirement of Rep. James Hansen, R-Utah. Pombo won the chairmanship over seven more-senior Republicans, thanks to the recommendation of his mentor, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, and the endorsement of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. (Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., quit the committee in protest.)

At 41, Pombo became the youngest House committee chairman in history.

The chairman

As Resources Committee boss, Richard Pombo has roared. In his first two years as chairman, Pombo spent $105,000 on official mailings, almost seven times more than any other House committee spent in the same period. Many of them were partisan tirades against environmental laws.

Pombo has targeted not only the Endangered Species Act, but the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, fishing and logging regulations and other environmental laws. In one committee press release in 2004, he attacked the Clinton-era protection of roadless forests in national forests as a "mindless edict" that only benefits "the environmental scare-peddling and fundraising industry."

The committee’s official Web site offers a taste of Pombo’s view of the world. It defends President Bush’s policies on national parks, and it applauds the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to list the greater sage grouse as endangered — a decision that generated great controversy when it emerged that a high-level political appointee doctored a scientific report on the grouse (HCN, 12/20/04: Rulings keep the West open for business). And though Pombo constantly demands "sound science" in environmental debates, it is in short supply on the Web site. In one report, Pombo advocates oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, claiming it will benefit migrating caribou.

"He runs the Resources Committee like his own personal propaganda machine," says Wes Rolley, a Morgan Hill, Calif., activist who runs the "Pombo Watch" Internet blog. "I think ‘sound science’ is anything that supports what he wants to do."

With his party in control of both Congress and the White House, Pombo should be poised to make good on a career’s worth of threats — a possibility that frightens his critics.

"The long-range implications of following the path that Pombo is leading us on really haven’t gotten the publicity they ought to have," says Jim DiPeso, policy director of Republicans for Environmental Protection. "His priorities in the areas of energy, public lands and wildlife conservation are completely at odds with the best interests of our nation. I cannot think of a worse person to be chairman of the Resources Committee."