Lawmakers struggle to rewrite the Endangered Species Act

  • NO COMPROMISE: Tim Hermach

    Native Forest Council photo

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.

Most 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 bill.

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, 8/4/97).

"To limit risks of extinction," the scientists said, "no private or public agency action should negatively modify habitat occupied by a threatened, endangered or candidate species."

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 property.

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 extinction."

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 discovery.

To date, however, no scientist who signed the letter has withdrawn support.

Incentives for landowners

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 lands.

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.

"We have 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 slimmer."

Peter Chilson is HCN associate editor.

You can contact ...

* Sen. Dirk Kempthorne's office at 202/224-6142;

* Tim Hermach and the Native Forest Council at 541/688-2600;

* David Wilcove and the Environmental Defense Fund at 202/234-6049.

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