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Know the West

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.


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."

The crusader

Richard Pombo got his start in public life in 1990, when he ran for a seat on the Tracy City Council. Much to his surprise, he says, he won.

He didn’t stay in local politics for long, however. Redistricting triggered by the 1990 Census created a new congressional seat that included Tracy, and in 1991, Pombo ran as a Republican, winning by just 2 percentage points. His life was transformed overnight.

Just 29 years old, Pombo hit the national stage, a strapping cattleman in a white cowboy hat and pencil-thin mustache. His timing couldn’t have been better.

Republicans were about to seize the majority in the House. The new House speaker, Newt Gingrich, soon claimed the spotlight with his "Contract with America," a controversial agenda of term limits, tort reform, welfare cutbacks and harsh criminal sentencing. Republicans hungered for outside-the-Beltway thinkers, and Pombo’s cowboy-hat conservatism made him a natural darling of the new movement. He became friends with Gingrich, won seats on the Resources and Agriculture committees, and began to clamor for what became his obsession: property rights and the reform of the Endangered Species Act.

This Land is Our Land was Pombo’s manifesto. A Sierra magazine reviewer called it "carelessly cranked-out … slanted, self-righteous and self-serving." But its underlying philosophy struck a chord with those conservatives who believed environmental laws were stomping on personal liberties.

In the book, Pombo attacked what he called the "eco-federal coalition," a cabal of tree-huggers and overzealous regulators who seek to lock up land for obscure endangered species. "Eco-leaders are used to winning their fights with like-minded judges in the courtrooms and like-minded bureaucrats in Washington," he wrote. "Their victims, however, are everywhere — people whose way of life was threatened by activists and bureaucrats who couldn’t tell a salmon from a salesman."

He called for a return to a literal interpretation of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which states in part, "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." He ridiculed Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas’ comment, from a landmark 1954 case: "It is within the power of the Legislature to determine that the community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacious as well as clean, well-balanced as well as carefully patrolled."

Yet for all his saber-rattling, Pombo has accomplished little as a legislator. In his 12-plus years in the House, he has passed only eight bills into law. Few of them have had any national significance. Eleven times, he has proposed legislation to rewrite the Endangered Species Act, arguing that the law amounts to a "taking" of private property rights, because it sometimes restricts what owners can do with their land. All failed. One was so extreme that even Gingrich shot it down.

Despite his track record, however, Pombo considers himself successful.

"When I got here 12 years ago, property rights were not even in consideration when Congress was drafting bills," he told the National Journal last year. "Now, any time you have a land-use bill come through the House, the protection of property rights is always part of the debate. We’ve moved the ball considerably."

And the alliances Pombo has formed over the years with Republican power brokers have now put him in a position of major influence. He was appointed Resources Committee chairman in January 2003, following the retirement of Rep. James Hansen, R-Utah. Pombo won the chairmanship over seven more-senior Republicans, thanks to the recommendation of his mentor, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, and the endorsement of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. (Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., quit the committee in protest.)

At 41, Pombo became the youngest House committee chairman in history.

The chairman

As Resources Committee boss, Richard Pombo has roared. In his first two years as chairman, Pombo spent $105,000 on official mailings, almost seven times more than any other House committee spent in the same period. Many of them were partisan tirades against environmental laws.

Pombo has targeted not only the Endangered Species Act, but the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, fishing and logging regulations and other environmental laws. In one committee press release in 2004, he attacked the Clinton-era protection of roadless forests in national forests as a "mindless edict" that only benefits "the environmental scare-peddling and fundraising industry."

The committee’s official Web site offers a taste of Pombo’s view of the world. It defends President Bush’s policies on national parks, and it applauds the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to list the greater sage grouse as endangered — a decision that generated great controversy when it emerged that a high-level political appointee doctored a scientific report on the grouse (HCN, 12/20/04: Rulings keep the West open for business). And though Pombo constantly demands "sound science" in environmental debates, it is in short supply on the Web site. In one report, Pombo advocates oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, claiming it will benefit migrating caribou.

"He runs the Resources Committee like his own personal propaganda machine," says Wes Rolley, a Morgan Hill, Calif., activist who runs the "Pombo Watch" Internet blog. "I think ‘sound science’ is anything that supports what he wants to do."

With his party in control of both Congress and the White House, Pombo should be poised to make good on a career’s worth of threats — a possibility that frightens his critics.

"The long-range implications of following the path that Pombo is leading us on really haven’t gotten the publicity they ought to have," says Jim DiPeso, policy director of Republicans for Environmental Protection. "His priorities in the areas of energy, public lands and wildlife conservation are completely at odds with the best interests of our nation. I cannot think of a worse person to be chairman of the Resources Committee."

The "quiet one"

Just as Richard Pombo has reached a position of tremendous power in Washington, however, two factors have begun to erode his traditional base of support back home. First, Tracy and San Joaquin County are changing as extreme housing prices in the Bay Area drive moderate voters into the more affordable San Joaquin Valley. Second, the 2000 Census radically altered Pombo’s district: It now includes sections of Contra Costa, Alameda and Santa Clara counties, where voters tend to be more moderate.

Pombo’s challenger in 2004, Democrat Jerry McNerney, a wind-energy consultant with a doctorate in mathematics, won 39 percent of the vote, despite the fact that Pombo outspent him by 7-to-1. McNerney had virtually no support from the national Democratic Party, but that is sure to change in 2006. The Democrats have already begun advertising against Pombo, and at least three local citizens’ groups are agitating for his ouster.

Perhaps in response to all this, Pombo has toned down his rhetoric. It’s harder to find him in the spotlight raging against environmentalists. He says he’s willing to compromise if it will bring about change, and that he is more apt to hear out the other side — even solicit their views. Pombo, in short, has again become "the quiet one" who blended into those yearbook photos.

"When I first got here, I thought you could just do everything all at once and get it over with," he told the San Francisco Chronicle last year. "Over 12 years, I’ve figured out you can’t do that. It takes incremental change."

Pombo has even changed his look. He has lost the white cowboy hat. The dry-look hair of the outdoorsman has become spiky with mousse. A goatee has joined the mustache to give him a more urbane visage.

He has soothed his Republican elders on the committee by showing them deference. He has even won praise from Democrats for being fair-minded. At a May 25 Resources Committee hearing on reparations for the Marshall Islands, where American nuclear bomb testing in the 1950s left a legacy of illness and environmental degradation, Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, told the island delegation, "Believe me, you are in good hands with Chairman Pombo. There is not a more fair person in the U.S. Congress."

In 2003, Pombo partnered with Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Dianne Feinstein of California, to craft the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. Signed by President Bush in 2003, it expedites environmental review of logging projects to reduce fire danger (HCN, 12/8/03: Forest protection on the honor system). Pombo teamed with Feinstein again in 2004 to pass the Tribal Forest Protection Act, which allows Indian tribes to log federal land adjacent to their reservations and requires federal agencies to accelerate environmental reviews of these projects. It is the only environment-related bill Pombo has ever written that became law.

Despite the makeover and the recent cross-the-aisle cooperation, however, there is no indication that Pombo has changed his views. He is simply moving his agenda in new ways.

In April, Pombo secretly wrote an amendment to the House energy bill, exempting many energy projects from the National Environmental Policy Act, which, after the Endangered Species Act, is perhaps his favorite whipping boy. NEPA requires an environmental impact review for major projects on federal land, and if Pombo’s amendment survives to see the president’s signature, it will be a godsend for oil and gas companies. Though Pombo wrote the amendment, his name did not appear on it; it was sponsored by Rep. John Peterson, R-Penn.

Pombo has also been working behind the scenes to funnel industry money to his allies in Congress. Shortly after becoming chairman, he created a political action committee, a tool that gives politicians access to more industry donations than many congressional committees allow. Pombo’s action committee, called "Rich PAC," has hauled in piles of tribal money, thanks to his support for Indian casinos. And his desire to sell off thousands of acres of wilderness-quality public land in Nevada has brought piles of cash from Las Vegas developers.

Pombo also runs his own "environmental" group, called the International Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources. The group, funded by large corporations, challenges mainstream environmental groups and crusades for more lenient environmental laws worldwide. Between 2001 and 2003 the foundation collected donations totaling $130,000 from food giants Sysco Corp., Monsanto and General Mills. It then put out a series of "studies" and position papers on the importance of bioengineered food. During the same period, it collected almost $430,000 from restaurant chains, corporate fishing concerns, whaling organizations and fur-trapping associations. The foundation then launched a barrage of counterattacks against animal-rights groups that had organized boycotts of those industries.

Pombo’s industry friends have been generous supporters of his campaigns, too. In the campaign cycle that ended in 2004, nearly two-thirds of his $1.1 million in gifts came from energy, agribusiness and developers.

During the Republican National Convention last year, his backers threw a $250,000 party in his honor at a New York City nightclub. Dubbed "Pombo-Palooza," it was organized by the American Gas Association and paid for by more than 40 special-interest groups, including the American Forest and Paper Association, Chevron Texaco, National Association of Home Builders and National Mining Association. It featured dance-hall girls passing out cowboy hats, a mechanical bull, music by the Charlie Daniels Band, and a curtained VIP area where Resources Committee members could meet privately with industry bosses.

"More people should be concerned," says Mike Casey, with the Environmental Working Group. "He’s one of the loyal foot soldiers in the takeover of government by influence-peddling industry."

Others say Pombo’s opponents portray him as a radical because it suits their own interests.

"I know how much he infuriates some of the environmental groups," says Andal, Pombo’s longtime friend. "A lot of that’s just rhetoric. But from where I sit, there’s a lot of extremism to go around on both sides."

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


Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif. pombo.house.gov
[email protected], 202-225-1947 

House Committee on Resources resourcescommittee.house.gov

[email protected], 202-225-2761

Democratic Minority resourcescommittee.house.gov/democrats


Alliance for a Better Congress

[email protected] www.votepomboout.org

Pombo Watch Blog


American Land Rights Association

www.landrights.org , Chuck Cushman, executive director, [email protected], 360-687-3087

Republicans for Environmental Protection www.repamerica.org Jim DiPeso, policy director, [email protected], 253-740-2066