These disagreements did not, however, stop Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chair of the House Resources Committee, from claiming that the Keystone committee echoed his arguments about the Endangered Species Act. Pombo’s bill, which would retool the law to eliminate critical habitat, narrowly passed the House in December.

"The Keystone Center’s letter to the Senate reaffirmed the 229 House Members who voted to update and modernize the ESA," Pombo said in a statement on his committee Web site. "One thing is certainly clear: it is not a question of IF, it is a question of HOW (the act will be updated), and I look forward to working with the Senate to get this job done."

"We in no way endorsed Pombo’s efforts to eliminate critical habitat from the law without providing adequate alternative protection for habitat necessary for wildlife to recover," committee member Bob Irvin, of Defenders of Wildlife, shot back in a letter to the Stockton Record, a paper in Pombo’s district. The committee’s recommendations for improving incentives, he added, were quite different from provisions in Pombo’s bill that would require the federal government to pay landowners who are affected by the law.

In fact, Pombo’s bill, which most environmentalists agree would gut the Endangered Species Act, was both the impetus behind the Keystone meetings, and a barrier to reaching consensus, according to some participants. Environmentalists were concerned that any bill that the Senate passes would have to be reconciled with Pombo’s bill in conference. That concern hobbled consensus efforts, says Keystone group member Sean Skaggs, a former Clinton administration attorney now working in private practice.

Environmentalists will not comment on their future strategy. Some have called for reforming the Endangered Species Act in the past, but this is a risky time to be retooling a bedrock environmental law. The safer strategy may be stonewalling, since mid-term elections make it unlikely that the Senate will approve any bill that could be construed as destroying the law.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is trying to force some movement on the issue. Environment and Energy Daily reports that he might introduce his own ESA bill by the end of March if Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., who chairs the subcommittee working on the Endangered Species Act, does not produce a bill by then. Inhofe has declined to say what kind of bill he would propose, but environmentalists fear his bill would closely resemble Pombo’s.

In a statement, Chafee said the Keystone report makes it clear that the law’s emphasis must shift from protecting habitat to promoting species recovery. "While it is unfortunate that consensus could not be reached on how to transform ... critical habitat ... there is no doubt that change is necessary," he said.

The author is the Arizona Daily Star’s environment reporter.