By JAMES W. BROSNAN
Scripps Howard News Service
October 01, 2005
The House voted 222-193 to weaken the government's power to force landowners to protect endangered species. Under the bill the government could no longer order property owners and local governments to protect critical habitat for the plants and wildlife. But the government could develop recovery plans for species and would have to pay landowners who participate.
The Congressional Budget Office said the measure could nearly double the annual cost of enforcing the act, to more than $600 million a year, because of the payments to landowners. The White House Office of Management and Budget said President Bush supports the reforms, but expressed reservations about the "significant budgetary impact."
The measure would become the first major revision to the Endangered Species Act and marks a victory a major victory for ranchers, farmers, developers and miners over conservation groups. But its fate in the Senate is unclear.
Nationwide there are 523 species of animals and 745 species of plants that the current law requires the government to protect. There are 466 with "critical habitat" plans limiting human impact to some extent.
Critics of the act say that few species make it off the Endangered List, but its defenders say many would have vanished in the continental United States without the protection - included the bald eagle, grizzly bear and California condor.
"Each of those species is part of a web of life that protects us," said John Kostyack, senior counsel to the National Wildlife Federation.
But the act also has enraged some constituents, especially in the West where vast tracts of land or scarce supplies of water have sometimes been reserved to protect rare species of rodents, birds, insects, lizards and plants.
"The Endangered Species Act has become a tool by those opposed to agriculture as a means of driving people out of agriculture or forestry," said John Wortman, executive director of the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau.
Some critics said saving endangered species has endangered humans.
Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif., blamed the collapse of a levee in his northern California district on trees left growing on the levee as shelter for the Valley Elderberry Longhorn beetle.
Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., said homeowners in wildfire-prone Riverside County were advised that cutting down brush for firebreaks would harm the Stephen's Kangaroo rat.
But supporters of the act were equally emotive.
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., cited Noah's Ark and said he feared the changes in the law would "result in more extinctions of species that God has placed in our care."
Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., brought an enlarged photo of the bald eagle to the House floor.
"What is a fish without a river? What is a bird without a tree to nest in," said Inslee. "This isn't modernization of the act. It's euthanasia of the act."
The bill now goes to the Senate where Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., would like a vote this fall.
But the chairman of the subcommittee with jurisdiction is a moderate Republican from Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee, who prefers to wait until 2006.
Concerning the bill as passed by the House, Chafee said, "I don't think that would get the votes needed over here."
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