The Endangered Species Act - the nation's premier environmental law affecting thousands of plants and animals and many times that many landowners - is poised to undergo its greatest shake-up since Richard Nixon signed it 32 years ago.
The House has passed legislation that changes several fundamental elements of the law, including protection of critical wildlife habitat and the financial rights of property owners. Whether similar legislation passes in the Senate - a large question at this point - it illustrates a deep and growing regional divide over fundamental environmental protections.
In general, ranchers, farmers, and others in the rural West (and their champions in Congress) want to make laws like those protecting endangered species far less restrictive. Eastern lawmakers, whether Republican or Democrat, are more likely to support sanctions on development and other land use in the name of protecting plants and animals threatened with extinction.
Protected under the ESA are 1,268 species. They range from such "charismatic megafauna" as grizzly bears to obscure species that many nonexperts would call bugs and weeds (but that scientists classify as important to the web of natural life).
Over the years, only a dozen or so species have rebounded to the point where they can be delisted, while nine have gone extinct. Were it not for the protections of the law (such as preserving habitat), many more would have disappeared, supporters of the law say. Or as Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, has said, "Ninety-nine percent of all the fish, plants and wildlife ever conserved under the Endangered Species Act have been saved from becoming lost forever."
Critics disagree, noting the large number of species that have languished on the list without recovering robustly as well as those whose status is not clearly known.
"Do these sound like the statistics of a successful law? Of course not," said Rep. Richard Pombo (R), the principal author of the proposed law, at a hearing. "The bottom line is the Endangered Species Act is in desperate need of an update," said Representative Pombo, a farmer and rancher from California's San Joaquin Valley who chairs the House Resources Committee.
Supporters of the bill say there needs to be a greater role for states, local governments, private individuals, and others potentially affected by the law.
"Local people want to do the right thing," Michael Pasteris, speaking on behalf of the National Association of Counties, told a Senate subcommittee recently. "But more often than not they lack the tools to get the work done on the ground."
Politically, this may be especially true of farmers, ranchers, home builders, and others who find themselves stymied by the presence of a listed species on their property, especially since some three-quarters of all endangered species are found on private property. "Get landowners involved in the planning process," says Chuck Cushman of the American Land Rights Association in Battle Ground, Wash. "Reward them, don't penalize them."
The reward, in the case of the House-passed bill, is a provision for reimbursing owners whose property value is reduced by the law. What this amounts to, critics say, is paying private individuals for complying with environmental law.
"If this language were applied to local zoning, no mayor or city council could govern a community without fear that their decisions might drive the community into financial ruin," said Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, senior Democrat on the House Resources Committee, in a statement.
Although most House Democrats, together with 34 moderate Republicans, proposed an alternative bill that failed by 10 votes, the largely pro-development Pombo bill passed 229 to 193.
In the Senate, such changes to endangered-species law face an uncertain future.
"It's going to have an uphill fight, mostly because it has to go through Sen. Lincoln Chafee," says Ron Talley, spokesman for the Republican Main Street Partnership, a centrist group with 59 members in the Senate and House. The Rhode Island Republican chairs the subcommittee where such bills are first considered.
While Senator Chafee promises to "take a hard look at the effectiveness of the ESA," he (along with many Democrats and several other key Republicans) comes to the debate with pro-environment credentials.
In any case, many on both sides agree with Govs. Bill Owens (R) of Colorado and Dave Freudenthal (D) of Wyoming who recently testified on behalf of the Western Governors' Association: "The act has become too contentious; the parties too litigious; there is too little collaboration and trust between stakeholders; and conservation efforts have suffered as a result."