Richard Pombo and the Endangered Species Act Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA) has campaigned for years against the Endangered Species Act. The House of Representatives recently approved a rewrite of the law that would make it more friendly to landowners. The roots of Pombo's passion to protect private property lie in the ranch town where he grew up.

Richard Pombo and the Endangered Species Act

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next, we're going to find out why one lawmaker is so determined to alter environmental laws. He's a congressman who recently suggested selling off 15 national parks to developers. Congressman Richard Pombo later said he was just trying to get attention for the need to cut government spending, but he is definitely serious about his effort to change one of the most far-reaching environmental laws. Richard Pombo has campaigned for years against the Endangered Species Act. A few weeks ago, the House of Representatives approved a rewrite of that law that would make it more friendly to landowners. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren traveled to Pombo's home town, Tracy, California, where she found the roots of Pombo's passion to protect private property.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

At the edge of town where the flatland turns hilly, lies the Pombo family ranch. This is where Congressman Pombo spent his childhood and early adult years.

Representative RICHARD POMBO (California): I grew up, you know, riding horses and driving tractor and, you know, feeding the cattle. It was something I had to do, you know, every morning before school and every day after school. My life before I became a member of Congress was working on the ranch.

SHOGREN: He's the third generation of Pombos to work that land. He says that helps explain his commitment to protecting property rights, both his own and others.

Rep. POMBO: I think what a lot of people don't realize is you have an emotional attachment to that land. You don't want to be the generation that lost the family farm.

SHOGREN: When Pombo looks at his ranch he sees a business that belongs to him and his family and they decide what happens to it. But when biologist Patrick Kelly looks at the same foothills and open grasslands, he sees a home for wild animals, at least one of them endangered.

Mr. PATRICK KELLY (Biologist): That's where we find the San Joaquin kit fox.

SHOGREN: Kit foxes are the tiny carnivores that prowl these hills at night.

Mr. KELLY: They're a fascinating beast to see in the wild. I call them the ballet dancers of the dog family because to watch them bouncing through the vegetation is something else.

SHOGREN: When the government declared the San Joaquin kit fox endangered, that affected Pombo's own pocketbook.

Rep. POMBO: When I built a house on my own ranch I had to pay, you know, several thousand dollars to preserve kit fox habitat.

SHOGREN: Pombo says the Endangered Species Act gives the kit fox more rights than he has on his own property. That irks him. He once told a Senate committee that that's the reason he ran for office. He said Endangered Species Act restrictions, quote, "effectively stripped my property of its value and forced my family to operate our ranch with an unwanted, unneeded, unsilent partner, the federal government."

Personal tales like that helped him get elected in 1992. Pombo was just 31 years old.

Mr. LEROY ORNELLAS (Supervisor, San Joaquin County): He was very emotional in his storytelling of how his family was impacted.

SHOGREN: Leroy Ornellas is a San Joaquin County supervisor and a long-time friend of Pombo.

Mr. ORNELLAS: And you could see that that really resonated with people. They understood that big government can impact the lives of the ordinary citizen.

SHOGREN: There are many protected animals in and around the area, like the riparian brush rabbit, red-legged frog and tiger salamander. And many property owners have been affected or fear they could be. Brad Lange(ph) owns a vineyard in the northeastern part of Pombo's district. Lange's property includes several areas of so-called vernal pools. This time of year, these are just slight dips in dry, open fields.

(Soundbite of rustling grass)

Mr. BRAD LANGE (Vineyard Owner, Pombo's District): As you walk into the vernal pool you'll start seeing the dry grasses that are a little bit different. Coyote grass. I can't tell you the species name. I just know the farmer name.

(Soundbite of rustling grass)

SHOGREN: For several weeks of the year, when water collects here, fairy shrimp mysteriously appear. Lange is intrigued by the creatures, but they get in the way. They're endangered and the law forces Lange to help protect them. He could plant vineyards in those areas and pay a lot of money to preserve vernal pools elsewhere, or he could leave them alone. He chose to plant around them. Lange says he's committed to conservation, but he says when the government restricts him from making money on his property it's the same as taking it from him.

Mr. LANGE: If the government is going to put the handcuffs on me and say, `You will not do that. You cannot convert that agricultural land to another agricultural product,' then I think that is a taking and I think Congressman Pombo is correct in saying that the federal government should step forward and compensate that private landowner for that public good that will result from it.

SHOGREN: It's not just farmers who were hurt by the Endangered Species Act in Pombo's district. There's a building boom under way. Developers complain of endless red tape and long-delayed projects as government officials take their time in deciding how to protect rare species. After being elected in 1992, Pombo repeatedly introduced legislation to protect private property from the federal government's endangered species rules. For years he got nowhere. Then two years ago, he won the job of chairman of the House Resources Committee. That committee oversees the Endangered Species Act. At 44, he's the youngest committee chairman in the House. Ornellas, the San Joaquin County supervisor, says that could be the break Pombo needs.

Mr. ORNELLAS: I think after--What?--10, 12, 13 years?--he has got himself into a position of seniority, of power if you will, to where he's actually able to fulfill, I think, what has been one of his ideals from the very beginning. And nobody had the guts to do this until Congressman Pombo began.

SHOGREN: Pombo's plan, which already passed in the House, would limit the government's power to set aside land for rare species and it would compensate landowners who are restricted from using their property to make money because of endangered or threatened species. Environmentalists, even in his home district, consider it an assault on the law that saved bald eagles from extinction. Sierra Club activist, Eric Parfrey, stands beside a sweeping tract of rolling hills and dry grass about a mile from Pombo's ranch. A developer hopes to construct a large subdivision here and has agreed to preserve thousands of acres for the endangered kit fox. But Parfry says Pombo's bill would put an end to that kind of agreement.

Mr. ERIC PARFREY (Sierra Club): It'll be a disaster, pure and simple. Looking out on this particular grassland area west of Tracy, if Richard Pombo's rewrite of the Endangered Species Act was enacted, there would be no corridor for the kit fox here. The kit fox would simply be obliterated from this 6,000 acres because there would be no federal ammunition to even require a developer to set aside any land.

SHOGREN: Pombo says legal requirements are not the way to go. He says his bill will provide incentives for landowners to protect species, and they'll be more inclined to because they won't see endangered species as the enemy. Pombo's fight is not over. The Senate still has to weigh in and some moderate Republicans there feel Pombo's bill could put rare species at even greater risk. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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