A powerful House chairman introduced legislation in September that would sharply limit the federal government’s ability to regulate landowners who impact endangered species or their habitat.
H.R. 3824, the Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act of 2005, would no longer require that the federal government take steps to protect species which are merely “threatened,” rather than “endangered,” with extinction.
The bill would also set a “best available science” standard for the science used by federal agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which would delay steps to protect currently protected species and frustrate efforts to protect new species. And, the bill would end the designation of the “critical habitat” used by federally protected species—a designation that has had little practical impact but has been hotly opposed by many farmers and developers.
But the most controversial provisions of the bill introduced by House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-CA, would require federal regulators to tell landowners within 90 days if proposed land uses would violate the Endangered Species Act, and would require federal regulators to compensate landowners if they were prohibited from using their land to build homes or grow crops.
Pombo’s bill, which was co-sponsored by seven Republicans and six Democrats, would “severely cripple the federal effort to recover endangered plants and animals,” said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, a national environmental group. He called the bill “a windfall for the developers” that would bankrupt meager federal programs designed to aid the recovery of rare wildlife.
In particular, environmental advocates say cash-strapped federal agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lack the resources to determine whether tens of thousands of site-specific landowner proposals would endanger rare wildlife or their habitat within 90 days, and certainly can’t afford to pay landowners if they use their power to block proposed developments or other land use changes.
Under the bill, land use proposals would proceed if federal regulators fail to respond to them within 90 days.
Environmental groups say the 32-year-old Endangered Species Act is a conservation success story that has brought hundreds of species back from the brink of extinction, including the bald eagle.
But Rep. Pombo contends that the act has failed to help many of the nation’s nearly 1,300 endangered and threatened species and has instead created “conflict, bureaucracy and rampant litigation.”
“Without meaningful improvements, the ESA will remain a failed managed care programs that checks species in but never checks them out,” he said.
But recent studies show that more than half of the species listed as endangered or threatened before 2000 have stabilized or are improving. A key variable, studies show, is the amount of federal funding dedicated to habitat protection and restoration.
The Pombo bill would authorize several new landowner incentive programs, but environmental advocates noted that spending for many existing federal habitat restoration programs designed to help rare species has been cut in recent years.
More than 40 species in the watershed of the Chesapeake Bay are protected by the Endangered Species Act, including “threatened” species like the bog turtle and the piping plover. Under the Pombo bill, the federal government would no longer be required to protect these “threatened” species.
The bill might also require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to compensate landowners who host the mixed stands of hardwoods and pines favored by the Delmarva fox squirrel, a large slate gray squirrel that is “endangered.” Landowners who are prohibited from harvesting trees could demand payment from the federal government under the bill.
The bill is expected to pass the House Resources Committee, which is dominated by western legislators, and the House of Representatives. Several senators are also working on related bills, including reforms to critical habitat designations and the scientific standards employed by federal agencies as well as changes that might enhance the role of state and local governments. But, wildlife advocates expect a Senate bill would be far less sweeping than the Pombo proposal.