CONSERVATIVE lawmakers on Capitol Hill are vigorously attempting to revamp environmental policy through the budget process, and nowhere is this more evident than with the Endangered Species Act.
Critics of the controversial law are cutting deeply into spending for scientific research that is at the heart of governmental efforts to prevent extinction. They're also limiting federal funds to acquire or manage land valued as habitat for endangered species. In addition, appropriations bills include provisions that ban listing additional species as ''endangered'' or ''threatened.''
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt calls it ''a sneak attack,'' and environmentalists are hopping mad at the apparent attempt to weaken the law while avoiding the politically risky business of overtly gutting it.
''They know their attacks against wildlife will not survive public scrutiny for long, so they are trying to rush legislation through the back door,'' says William Snape, legal counsel for the Defenders of Wildlife in Washington.
But supporters of the budget cutting say it reins in a bureaucratic behemoth that has proved to be what policy analyst Ike Sugg of the Competitive Enterprise Institute calls ''a failure for wildlife and a disaster for people.''
Early in this congressional term, the Senate Republican Regulatory Relief Task Force put the Endangered Species Act (ESA) at the top of its ''Top Ten Worst-Case Regulations.''
A week ago, the House of Representatives cut 1996 spending for the National Biological Service by 30 percent. The House also transferred the rest of this Interior Department agency to other government programs, breaking up the group of federal scientists surveying ecosystems around the country.
Lawmakers in the House also wiped out National Park Service funds to manage a new desert preserve in California, home to several endangered species. They cut $184 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, used to purchase endangered-species habitat. And in both the House and Senate, there have been moves to restrict Environmental Protection Agency spending for the safeguarding of wetlands.
Critics of the National Biological Service see it as an intrusive, big-brother effort to snoop around private property, where most endangered plant and animal species are found. They became all the more determined when the Supreme Court last month upheld the federal government's authority under the Endangered Species Act to restrict habitat use - even on private property.
ESA opponents (who overlap with private-property advocates) say it makes more sense to rely on landowners to protect species, not bureaucrats. ''Fifteen [million] to 20 million landowners in this country are better than having 100 eco-cops running around,'' says Chuck Cushman, head of the Grassroots ESA Coalition, an umbrella group of some 200 organizations representing everything from the Alaska Loggers Association to the Sugar Cane Growers Co-op of Florida.
These days, ''A businessman's biggest nightmare is finding an endangered species on his land,'' says Mr. Cushman. ''Landowners are following a 'shoot-shovel-and-shut up' philosophy, because they can't afford to lose their property. We're not making landowners the allies, we're making them the enemies of species,'' he says.
In Senate testimony last week, Mr. Babbitt conceded that there are ''legitimate problems associated with the act.'' But he expressed concern that recent congressional budget actions ''will exacerbate rather than reduce'' those problems.
''Endangered species will become more endangered and in some cases go extinct, while the status of threatened species will continue to decline and efforts to recover them will be more costly,'' he said.
In response to charges that the ESA is a burden on landowners, President Clinton recently announced that all homes on parcels of land less than five acres will be exempt from species-protection regulations, including wetlands restrictions under the Clean Water Act. This covers some 95 percent of all homes in the country.
''Under these reforms, the vast majority of all American homeowners will never have to worry about endangered species or wetlands requirements,'' Mr. Clinton said. The administration also wants to expand the role of states in endangered-species listing and recovery plans and provide for more peer review in scientific decisionmaking.
''We are committed to common sense reform of the ESA,'' Babbitt says, ''not the reckless rollback of safeguards that some are advocating.''