Their offense? Some members of these groups had been holding secret meetings with industry leaders, including Georgia Pacific, the National Association of Realtors, and Plum Creek Timber Company. Their hope was to find common ground on the Endangered Species Act; the result of these get-togethers was a plan to reauthorize the ESA but to make it more user-friendly to landowners.
Michael Bean, a longtime staffer with the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., says he initiated talks because the act can be reauthorized only if environmentalists, industry and private property owners can reach agreement. Reauthorization of the ESA has been at an impasse since September, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich pulled a bill, sponsored by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, that would have gutted the law. A less drastic bill by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md., and Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., failed in committee (HCN, 11/13/95).
Bean says that every day that passed without action felt to him like a species dying. Funding cuts to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the year-old moratorium on listing species as endangered had severely hampered enforcement of the act. But he was most concerned that landowners, with no incentives to help endangered species, were destroying habitat - chopping down trees or plowing fallow fields - before anyone could discover an endangered species on their property.
As the months passed, Saxton decided he had the political muscle to try his bill again. According to Saxton spokesman Gary Gallant, Saxton was garnering support from conservative Midwest Republicans who told him that they were ready to compromise. Saxton and other moderate Republicans also met with the growing alliance between environmentalists and industry that Bean had put together. Now, Gallant says, Saxton is ready to introduce a bill that incorporates the group's conclusions.
This bill would offer landowners tax deferrals if they participate in the recovery of species. It would also legalize a policy introduced by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt in 1995, which guarantees landowners no change in their habitat conservation plan even if other endangered species are found on their land. But unlike the Young-Pombo bill, it does not force taxpayers to pay landowners if an endangered species is found to reduce the value of their property.
When drafts of Saxton's bill became public earlier in the month, middle ground proved to be unsafe territory for everyone. An incensed Pombo berated the industry groups for meeting with the environmentalists. Endangered Species Coalition leaders accused Bean and other "renegades' of violating an agreement not to hold covert discussions about the ESA, according to Jasper Carlton of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation.
At the core is a disagreement about political strategy. Many environmentalists in the coalition say that the solid defeat last year of the Young-Pombo bill meant environmentalists should hold firm and not compromise too early. While most members of the Endangered Species Coalition agree that landowners need more incentives to protect species, they fear Bean's solution sacrifices the regulatory teeth of the ESA in an attempt to provide incentives on private land. Coalition member Carlton, who has litigated the ESA hundreds of times, says Bean's approach hands too much veto power to the states and gives industry too much say in creating recovery plans.
Members of the coalition just unveiled their Endangered Natural Heritage Act, a set of proposals that strengthens the ESA through tougher penalties, stronger measures to prevent declining species from becoming endangered, and more protection for plants. The act does not yet have a sponsor in Congress and Bean says it is so idealistic it won't influence debate.
But Brian Vincent of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, who helped write the Heritage Act, says it's time for activists to take the offensive. "EDF didn't have a full appreciation of the energy and enthusiasm of the grassroots," says Brian Vincent. "It is an extremely assertive force that can significantly shape debate."
Environmentalists have been arguing over tactics since the act came up for reauthorization four years ago. Hank Fischer of Defenders of Wildlife, a coalition member, says this turmoil is just another chapter: "The tension is always there. I give points to Michael (Bean) for moving us forward so we have something new to talk about."
Carlton has a bleaker view of the schism: "This is the wrong time for war in the environmental movement. We already have a major split between grassroots and mainstream. The Republicans will divide and conquer."
For more information contact Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., at 202/225-0778 or for information on the Endangered Natural Heritage Act call Brian Vincent of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance at 360/671-9950.
* Heather Abel,