Endangered Species Act Faces Major Overhaul

A bill before Congress would overhaul the Endangered Species Act. Supporters of the change say the legislation is broken and needs fixing. Critics say the proposal would cripple efforts to save vanishing species. It's the most serious attack on the act in many years.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The House of Representatives has approved a major overhaul of the Endangered Species Act; the vote was 229-to-193. If the Senate and the White House go along, it would be the most sweeping rewrite of the law since it was passed 32 years ago. NPR's environmental correspondent Elizabeth Shogren has been following the story. She's with us now.

Elizabeth, what are the biggest changes that the bill would make in the act?

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

It would get rid of the critical habitat provisions in the law. They give the government the power to set aside swaths of land to give places for the rare species and plants to recover. And the government can restrict development in these areas, even on private property.

The other big change is that it would compensate private landowners who are restricted from doing certain things on their land. For instance, if the government says that a rancher can't turn his ranch into a subdivision or he can't turn it into a vineyard because there are endangered plants and animals there, then the government would have to pay the landowner money.

NORRIS: So some of the landowners and developers have been among the strongest supporters of this bill. Why do they say these changes are needed?

SHOGREN: They say that the current law is not fair, that it puts the rights of these animals and plants--say, a bird or a salamander--above the rights of people, and they don't like that at all. They've been fighting for a long time to get this kind of legislation passed.

NORRIS: And with these changes, would it actually make it harder to protect endangered species?

SHOGREN: Well, the supporters of the bill say it would make it easier to protect endangered species, and that's because the program would voluntary efforts by landowners to protect the species. There are new programs in this bill that would encourage that.

But environmentalists say it would gut the protections that have helped to bring back the bald eagle and the grizzly bear from almost extinction. And some of the government scientists I've talked to have said that, in fact, they will lose a lot of the tools that have made it possible for them to preserve these species. And they say that they'll never be able to get the money that they need to try to compensate the landowners for changing the uses of their land. So as a result, they won't be able to protect the species.

NORRIS: Now Interior Secretary Gale Norton has lent her support to this bill. What are the prospects that this will find its way to the White House and actually get a signature from the president?

SHOGREN: It's very unlikely that this bill as it's written will ever get to the president because the Senate hasn't weighed in yet. The senator who's writing the bill is Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and he has very different ideas. He likes the critical habitat provisions in the law, and he doesn't think that the payoff for landowners is a good idea at all. He's going to get--he's decided on working on a compromise, and he's asked landowners and corporations and environmentalists and all sorts of people from all sides of this issue to get together and try to come up with a compromise. And then once he sees what they come up, he's going to draft his own bill. That won't start until next year.

NORRIS: So if it looks like this bill will be amended in some way, what's the road ahead on Capitol Hill?

SHOGREN: Well, something really interesting happened today during the debate. Democrats proposed their own version of a change to the Endangered Species law, and they didn't do all the things that the Republicans did. But in their bill, they did decide to get rid of the critical habitat provisions. So it show that Democrats are on board with the major change of the Endangered Species Act.

The question is will Republicans and Democrats and landowners and environmentalists be able to come together with some kind of consensus on how this law should be changed, and there's a big question about whether or not that can happen.

NORRIS: Thank you, Elizabeth.

SHOGREN: Thank you.

NORRIS: NPR's Elizabeth Shogren.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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