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
 

In their recollections of the young Richard Pombo, people always call him "the quiet one." He was clean-cut and serious, often serving as a silent foil to his four boisterous brothers. He has called himself merely a "decent" student who was more interested in deeds than ideas.

Today, Pombo’s reputation could not be more different.

As he settles into his seventh term as a Republican congressman, and his second as chairman of the influential House Resources Committee, Pombo is known as the Jerry Falwell of the property rights movement. He’s been a passionate preacher in a white cowboy hat, bent on restoring to landowners the God-given rights torn from them by environmental zealots. His standard soundtrack has been all bombast against arrogant tree-huggers who want to turn family farms into lockups for endangered species. People, he has said, are an endangered species, too, and it’s time to put them back on level ground with the "roaches" and "rats" so foolishly preserved by environmental lawsuits and legislation.

In his 12-plus years in Congress, Pombo has agitated to eviscerate the Endangered Species Act, sell off public lands, and open forests and wilderness areas to more resource extraction. He has been the loudest in a small but vocal mob determined to drag America’s environmental laws out behind the toolshed.

As a politician, though, Pombo has made more noise than news. So far, he has accomplished little in the way of actual change. But these days, as the boss of the Resources Committee, Pombo has a tight grip on public lands and environmental laws. He has even changed the committee’s rules to ensure that no new environmental laws reach the House floor without his approval.

"He’s definitely in a position now of major power when it comes to these issues. I would say the average American probably isn’t aware of it," says Mark Sokolove, spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters. The group has given Pombo an average score of 8 percent on environmental issues over his career, among the lowest in Congress.

In response, the congressman’s supporters say it’s high time property rights held equal footing with endangered species. Pombo, they say, is the right man to strike a new balance.

"I absolutely think he’s a conservationist in the good sense of that word, and he’s not out there on the fringe following a dogma, but rather trying to solve problems," says Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association, a wise-use and property-rights group. "People ought to consider themselves very lucky that they have him in that position rather than someone who might be considered a demagogue."

Truth be told, Pombo has toned it down somewhat over the past two years. Compared to his early career, he is working carefully and quietly. He seems introspective. The once fire-breathing proselytizer has cooled his rhetoric, and is even working with Democrats on matters of mutual concern.

The new, mellower face of Richard Pombo may be a reaction to shifting political ground, both at home and in Congress. After six easy victories, 2006 could mark Pombo’s first real fight for re-election. And in Washington, the Republican Party seems to be fracturing, with some moderates shying away from radical proposals such as those he has pushed in the past.

Nonetheless, Pombo seems to be preparing to launch an overhaul not only of the Endangered Species Act, but of other bedrock environmental laws as well.

Richard Pombo is walking a tightrope, balancing ideology with political reality. If he tips one way, he may lose his seat in Congress. If he tips the other, he may miss his best chance to push through what may be the most dramatic changes ever to U.S. environmental law.

The man, the myth

Understanding Richard Pombo is not an easy task. He is known as a private man who rarely grants interviews, and rarely likes the results when he does. His staff refused to make him available for an interview with High Country News, despite dozens of requests over two months by phone, e-mail and in person.

But a look at Pombo’s life provides some insight into this rancher-turned-revolutionary. He was catapulted into power at a very young age, and he has built an identity with one foot on the ground in the rural West, and the other in the clouds.

Pombo spent much of his youth on the family cattle ranch in Tracy, Calif., a dusty city of 72,000 with its history in farming and its future in sprawl. It lies on the hot floor of the San Joaquin Valley, once a vast inland tidal marsh that pioneers drained and transformed into some of the world’s most fertile cropland. The San Francisco Bay Area is a short drive over Altamont Pass. Since Richard Pombo came to Congress, Tracy has doubled in population as commuters have crossed the pass to snatch up cheap housing.

The Pombo family throws a long shadow over Tracy. Richard’s grandfather, a Portuguese immigrant, spawned a large family of influential farmers and land barons. A major boulevard in Tracy — Joe Pombo Parkway — is named after him. Pombo Real Estate, founded by Richard’s late uncle Ernie, has made millions selling fertile San Joaquin County farms for tract homes and strip malls. The company’s signs dot the region today, and the family still owns hundreds of acres, ranging from rich valley bottomlands, ideal for vegetables, westward into the hills south of Altamont Pass, home to some of the nation’s best grazing land.

"We used to have to feed the cattle in the morning and work every day after school," Pombo, the second of five boys, told the Brentwood Press last year. "My mother would pick us up at school and we’d be back at work, feeding, fixing fences. I grew up doing it, from the time I was 4 or 5 years old. And I loved it. I loved every minute of it."

At Tracy High School, Pombo became a fixture in the school’s Future Farmers of America chapter. Yearbook photos show many of its members wearing cowboy hats or seed-company ball caps, with big grins on their faces. Pombo always wore a straight face and a faraway gaze, but he never appears in a hat. The hat seems to have come later.

After high school, Pombo studied agricultural business at Cal Poly Pomona, but left without a degree after three years, he says, to help run the family ranch. Today, he is among the 8 percent of members of Congress who do not have a college degree.

In 1983 he married Annette Cole, his girlfriend since eighth grade. The couple had three children, Richie, Rena and Rachel, names chosen, like their father’s, so their initials would match the family cattle brand. "He’s very typical of a guy who grew up in rural Tracy," says Dean Andal of Stockton, Calif., a longtime Pombo friend and former California state assemblyman. "If you grow up in that kind of situation and you try to act like you’re bigger than you are, people will cut you down to size.

"Richard is what he seems to be," Andal says. "There’s no deception." But a closer look can lead to a different conclusion.

Pombo has often said that his rage against environmentalists was sparked by a battle with the East Bay Regional Park District in the 1980s. The park district planned to open a hiking trail on an old railroad right-of-way that crossed the Pombo family ranch in the Diablo Range south of Altamont Pass.

"The park district sought this abandoned railroad right of way as a recreational trail through the property of two dozen local ranchers and that of my family," he wrote in his 1996 book This Land is Our Land, a brash credo on property rights and the evils of environmentalism. "We were very concerned that it would interfere with our ability to conduct business on our own property."

Pombo claimed the park district refused to fence the trail, police it or pick up trash, and that "viewshed" rules would have kept the ranchers from building new structures on their own land. All this, he wrote, and the park district refused to pay the ranchers a dime.

But none of this actually happened. The park district did propose a trail on the old rail line, but on a segment some 20 miles away, near San Francisco Bay. At that time, park district boundaries did not include the Pombo family land, Altamont Pass, or anything near it.

"The facts have been reported wrong," says Bob Doyle, the district’s assistant general manager, "and it’s become part of the robust history."

Pombo’s co-author on the book, Joseph Farah, says he cannot remember details of the trail story, adding that "I certainly have no interest in researching this." Farah is former editor of the now-defunct Sacramento Union newspaper, and founded WorldNetDaily.com, a news Web site with a conservative bent, based in Grants Pass, Ore.

Pombo also claimed, in testimony before a Senate subcommittee in 1994, that his family land was stripped of its value when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared it "critical habitat" for the endangered San Joaquin kit fox in 1986. In fact, the agency has never designated critical habitat for the fox — not on Pombo land or anywhere else. Questioned later on the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, Pombo admitted he has never been directly affected by a critical habitat designation.

Pombo’s formative moments seem to be myths, but that hasn’t stopped him from raging against what he called, in a recent Resources Committee press release, "voracious" bureaucrats and their "overzealous application of environmental regulations."

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