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.

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The test

The Endangered Species Act has been amended three times since it became law in 1973. These amendments all occurred before Richard Pombo came to Congress — in 1978, 1982 and 1988. All kept the act’s original framework intact, but added important deadlines and definitions. Numerous other attempts to amend the ESA — including the 11 led by Pombo — have collapsed under pressure from environmental groups. "The American people basically love the Endangered Species Act," says Brock Evans, president of the Endangered Species Coalition, an umbrella group representing hundreds of conservation, scientific and religious organizations nationwide.

President Clinton’s Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, helped defuse some of the anti-ESA fervor by championing Habitat Conservation Plans. Created under the 1982 amendments, HCPs allow property owners to displace or kill protected species in some areas, in return for habitat protection elsewhere (HCN, 11/10/03: San Diego’s Habitat Triage).

Contention over the Endangered Species Act has risen again under the Bush administration, however, which has taken to quietly undermining many environmental laws by manipulating agency science (HCN, 12/20/04: Riding high on political inappropriations). As a result, endangered species battles are again building nationwide, and Pombo is expected to roll out another Endangered Species Act reform bill this summer.

The effort so far suggests a man at war with his worst instincts. Apparently working in his more deliberate, cooperative mode, Pombo is first holding a series of public hearings on the act around the country. He also released two reports in May, totaling 93 pages, ostensibly assessing the act’s effectiveness.

Like Pombo’s report on Arctic oil drilling, however, these reports are an exercise in selective fact gathering. The 83-page Implementation of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, published by Pombo’s committee staff, criticizes a low success rate in recovering species. But the 1,264 species currently listed as threatened or endangered have been protected by the act for an average of only 15 years, and research shows it can take 30 to 50 years to revive a nearly extinct creature, says Evans. Most glaring, Evans says, the report ignores outside factors that contribute to species decline, especially habitat degradation.

The report spends most of its time addressing the cost of lawsuits against the government. But it ignores the fact that many of those lawsuits are triggered by the government’s failure to meet deadlines in the act, or by its refusal to protect species that merit listing, both often caused by inadequate funding. It also overlooks the fact that the courts have ruled overwhelmingly with environmentalists (HCN, 5/10/04: Shooting Spree).

While the report again makes the case that the Endangered Species Act infringes on private property rights, the law has not created serious enough economic impacts on private property to justify "takings" rulings in the courts, according to John Echeverria, executive director of the Georgetown Environmental Law and Policy Institute.

The second, shorter report, written by Pombo himself, amounts to a summary of the staff report.

And Pombo’s hearings are heavily weighted with the law’s critics. At one recent hearing, only one witness represented the environmental community, while seven represented farm groups, water agencies, and the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation.

"He’s spoken individually to some of our people and he’s civil in tone," says Evans. "But we’re not part of this process."

That’s a shame, says Evans, because many leading environmental groups believe there is room for reform in the Endangered Species Act. Many support "safe harbor" provisions to exempt property owners from new regulation if they commit to certain land-management practices. And many agree with Pombo that property owners need incentives to protect endangered species.

"It doesn’t bother me to see outright payments," says Evans.

Any doubts about Pombo’s intentions were dispelled in July, when a summary of Pombo’s new Endangered Species Act reform bill was leaked to environmental groups. Apparently to be called the "Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act of 2005," it contains many of the same revisions he has proposed unsuccessfully in the past. It includes compensation for property owners; rigid data and record-keeping requirements for listing decisions; and a larger role for local government in the listing and recovery process. It also consolidates enforcement solely in the hands of the secretary of the Interior, not with the Fish and Wildlife Service where it resides now. Most significant, it includes an unprecedented "sunset provision" that would cause the Endangered Species Act to expire in 2015, along with all related "permits, licenses, and other authorizations."

In short, this bill is the death of the act that Pombo has long dreamed about.

The future

The next 18 months could be the most challenging yet for Pombo, and for the nation’s environmental laws. With preliminary work under way to amend both the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, he will feel pressure to advance legislation on both fronts before the 2006 election.

The big question is whether Pombo has the timing and political capital to succeed.

While Pombo is a powerful man, he is also still seen as an extremist in many corners, and reform bills would likely have a better chance under another sponsor. It seems unlikely that Pombo would avoid taking credit for his life’s work by leaving his name off the Endangered Species bill, says Kristen Bossi, press secretary for the committee’s Democratic minority.

But Brian Kennedy, Pombo’s Resources Committee press secretary, recently told the congressman’s hometown newspaper, the Tracy Press, that he may do just that; unraveling the act is apparently more important to Pombo than getting credit for it.

But Pete McCloskey, a former Republican congressman from California, believes Pombo faces another challenge: The growing concern among some conservatives that today’s Republican leaders have set aside core values, such as prudent spending, free speech and natural resource protection, in pursuit of power. A congressman from 1967 to 1982, McCloskey co-sponsored both the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, and also co-chaired the first Earth Day in 1970. He says many rank-and-file Republicans have grown sensitive to the corruption of science and the pillaging of environmental law under the Bush administration and the Republican majority.

There are many signs that conservatives are shying away from more radical agendas, including their failure to support the Bush plan for Social Security reform, and their retreat from the "nuclear option" that would have ended the filibuster of judicial nominees.

As with those proposals, there is apparently no public groundswell for major reform of the Endangered Species Act. Many politicians may find that yet another complicated attempt at legislative reform will be a tough sell with constituents, especially with mid-term elections ahead.

But Pombo remains determined to push his agenda, regardless of what anyone else has to say about it. "I wrote Pombo last year and asked, since he was having hearings on the Endangered Species Act, would he give me the courtesy of letting me testify," says McCloskey, the former congressman. "I never heard back."

How will history judge Richard Pombo? The coming months will tell. He could be known as the man who blew apart the nation’s environmental laws, handing the public lands and wildlife to private interests. He could become a man who truly transforms himself, ditching the dogma to find some common ground. Or perhaps he’ll be remembered as a man full of sound and fury who, like a prankster pulling a fire alarm, ultimately signified nothing.

 

Matt Weiser reports for the Sacramento Bee.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- From the chairman: House Resource Committee press release headlines

- Pombo's power grows — and so do the scandals: Since Richard Pombo took over the House Resources Committee in 2003, the number of scandals around him has steadily grown

CONTACTS

Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif. pombo.house.gov
rpombo@mail.house.gov, 202-225-1947 

House Committee on Resources resourcescommittee.house.gov

resources.committee@mail.house.gov, 202-225-2761

Democratic Minority resourcescommittee.house.gov/democrats

202-225-6065

Alliance for a Better Congress

info@votepomboout.org www.votepomboout.org

Pombo Watch Blog

www.refpub.com/PomboWatch

American Land Rights Association

www.landrights.org , Chuck Cushman, executive director, ccushman@pacifier.com, 360-687-3087

Republicans for Environmental Protection www.repamerica.org Jim DiPeso, policy director, dipeso@repamerica.org, 253-740-2066