Sensible Species Protection

THE British comedy troupe ''Monty Python'' used to mock political races with a routine in which buttoned-down candidates from the Sensible Party were opposed by outrageously flamboyant rivals from the Silly Party.

As the Endangered Species Act comes up for review in coming weeks, Republicans and Democrats should drop their party affiliations long enough to form a Sensible coalition to see that reform stays out of the hands of extremists with, well, silly ideas.

Those who qualify for the Sensible coalition on reforming the ESA would agree with the following:

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* Species protection, like other environmental issues, is a federal problem. Our wildlife - like our air and water - don't observe state boundaries. Sending responsibility for habitat issues back to states, as some political conservatives advocate, is not wise or practical.

* Sadly, not every species can be saved. A system of priorities is necessary to determine which are most essential to man and crucial ecosystems, and can be saved at reasonable cost. (Granted, this ignores the troubling ethical issue of whether humans have the right to determine which other species survive.)

* The ESA should be modified to provide more carrots, rather than the kind of sticks that infuriate private landowners and result in ''horror stories'' that damage the image of environmentalism. These incentives could include various kinds of tax breaks, such as delaying estate taxes on lands being used to preserve species. The federal government might be able to swap some federal lands with private owners who have critical species on their property. This would not include a radical reading of what constitutes government ''takings'' that would require compensation to landowners for any restrictions on private land use.

Who'll be in the Sensible coalition? President Clinton, who says he prefers compromise to vetoes, ought to be. Many Democrats and a good number of environmentally conscious Republicans should join.

A crucial recruit is Speaker Newt Gingrich, who periodically has signaled that he sees the environmental ''big picture'' which seems to escape the property-rights-uber-alles wing of the GOP. If he reads the latest polls showing the public firmly behind environmental protection, he'll be there.

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