House Approves Revised Endangered Species Act

The Miami Blue Butterfly

The Miami blue butterfly, Hemiargus thomasi, is one of the latest species nominated for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Jeffrey Glassberg/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hide caption

itoggle caption Jeffrey Glassberg/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The House voted Thursday to rewrite the Endangered Species Act. The bill is designed to give landowners more say in what happens on their property when endangered species live there. Critics say the proposal will cripple efforts to save vanishing species.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The House of Representatives yesterday approved a major rewrite of the Endangered Species Act. The bill is designed to give landowners more say in what happens on their property when endangered species live there. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has this report.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

Proponents of the House bill, like Republican Wally Herger of California, say the Endangered Species Act isn't working, not for plants and animals and not for people.

Representative WALLY HERGER (Republican, California): The Endangered Species Act is a law with good intentions, but it has spun wildly out of control with tragic consequences for average Americans.

SHOGREN: For example, Herger says the government shut off irrigation water for farmers in Northern California and southern Oregon to protect endangered fish.

Rep. HERGER: Families who for generations had worked the soil to produce food for our nation were literally left high and dry.

SHOGREN: Representative Richard Pombo, a Republican from California's Central Valley, says the basic problem with the law is it gives the government the right to tell landowners how they can use their property if endangered species live there. Pombo says that's stealing.

Representative RICHARD POMBO (Republican, California): If you take away somebody's private property, if you take away the use of their private property, you have to pay them for it.

SHOGREN: Pombo's the chief architect of the House bill. It would require the government to compensate property owners at full market value if it restricts what they can do on their own land. Let's say a landowner wants to turn a ranch into a subdivision, but the government orders a wetland on that ranch to be preserved that's home for an endangered animal. Then the government would have to make up for the landowner's lost profits. Most Democrats attack the changes. Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon says this would encourage people to blackmail the government.

Representative EARL BLUMENAUER (Democrat, Oregon): It actually would create a perverse incentive for developers to propose the most environmentally destructive projects possible in order to get higher payment from the government.

SHOGREN: Opponents of the bill also say the government wouldn't have enough money to pay landowners, so it wouldn't be able to restrict the logging and construction projects that threaten endangered species. The bill also would take away the US Fish and Wildlife Service's right to set aside so-called critical habitats. These are areas the government considers necessary for an animal or plant to recover. Democrat Jay Inslee from Washington calls the bill a euthanasia of the Endangered Species Act because it wouldn't provide any legal authority to protect homes for the rare species.

Representative JAY INSLEE (Democrat, Washington): What is a fish without a river? What is a bird without a tree to nest in? What is an Endangered Species Act without any enforcement mechanisms to ensure that their habitat is protected? It is nothing.

SHOGREN: Democrats also condemn a provision that takes away the right for the Fish and Wildlife Service to weigh in on pesticide regulations. Most Democrats voted against the Republican bill, but they did seem ready to accept a significant revision of the Endangered Species Act. They voted in favor of an alternative version of the bill that, like the Republican legislation, would eliminate the critical-habitat provision. The Senate has yet to draft its version of the bill, but it's expected to take a very different approach. Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, a strong environmentalist, will write that bill. He likes the critical-habitat provisions in the law and he rejects the idea of paying off landowners. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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