Pombo Seeks to Weaken Endangered Species Act

U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA), head of the House Committee on Natural Resources, would change the basic foundations of the Endangered Species Act. Environmentalists call him an extremist. Supporters say he represents the views of his constituents.

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Congress is working on a bill that would make big changes to the Endangered Species Act. Leading the push for the overhaul is Congressman Richard Pombo from California's Central Valley. As Eric Niiler reports, Pombo has a long history of fighting environmental rules.

ERIC NIILER reporting:

Richard Pombo is nothing if not country. He often wears a cowboy hat. Black-and-white photos of guys roping steers and bucking broncos adorn his Capitol Hill office. During our interview, Pombo wore black alligator skin boots, from Texas, mind you. But he's no country bumpkin. He's a savvy politician and well-versed in the details of the complex Endangered Species Act. He says too many species have not yet recovered.

Representative RICHARD POMBO (Republican, California): We're not really doing a good job in terms of bringing back those numbers, and I think after three decades, we need to go back in and look at the act and figure out what we've done right, what we've done wrong, and how do we change that.

NIILER: There are more than 1,200 species on the endangered list, but only 10 have been removed since 1973 because they have recovered in sufficient numbers. Pombo says that's why the law isn't working. Pombo and Republican allies have come up with a plan to redo the bill. They say the act has ended up with too many lawsuits and robbed landowners of their property values. Pombo wants to compensate landowners if their property values drop by 50 percent. This would help farmers in places like Tracy, California, where the Pombo family still runs a working ranch.

Rep. POMBO: 'Cause right now, there's a big fear that you're going to find an endangered species on the property, because it's viewed as an economic disincentive. It's viewed as they're going to lower their property values, they're going to lower their ability to use their property, to farm it or run cattle on it or what have you.

NIILER: Pombo also wants to change how the government determines whether land is critical habitat for an endangered animal or plant. While a final version of the bill has not been introduced, draft proposals call for limiting critical habitat to areas now used by the species. The current law includes large areas of the species' historic range. Pombo believes biologists should collect empirical data, actually count the number of individual species living in an area. But scientists say that can be impossible when you're studying wild animals. Pombo's critics, including Congressman George Miller, a California Democrat, says bashing scientists is a smoke screen.

Representative GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California): The same people who claim about species not recovering then don't want to provide the money to help with the recovery to provide the habitat, to provide the protection. And then, at the same time that they denounce the science, they don't have any science that's any better.

NIILER: Miller used to hold Pombo's job as the House Resources Committee chairman. He says Republicans have tried several times to weaken the act. This year, Miller says, the Senate is working on a more bipartisan bill.

Rep. MILLER: But in the House, the process is really driven by the chairman and others with a very hard ideological view against this act working as it was designed.

NIILER: Environmentalists are waging their own campaign against Pombo. Susan Holmes is a lobbyist for Earthjustice.

Ms. SUSAN HOLMES (Lobbyist, Earthjustice): He's touted himself as a small landowner, a rancher, someone who's really there to support the little guy. In fact, if you look at Richard Pombo's campaign contributions, they come almost universally from big business and specifically big oil, big gas, big timber and big real estate development.

NIILER: That may be so, but Pombo accurately reflects the conservative political values of his Central Valley constituents, especially when it comes to the Endangered Species Act. His loyalty to Republican leaders has been rewarded with his top House leadership post. In that position, he consistently has favored private landowners over environmental protection in several key land use battles. While Pombo and his allies hope to make big changes to the Endangered Species Act, any revisions face scrutiny in the Senate, which has been more moderate on environmental issues. For NPR News, I'm Eric Niiler.

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