In an effort to combat an assault by the new Republican Congress on the Endangered Species Act, the Clinton Administration on Monday proposed reforms aimed at exempting small landowners and setting tougher requirements for deciding which animals and plants will be protected.
Under the Administration's recommendations, most private property owners with fewer than five acres of land containing threatened species could build projects without undergoing rigorous federal review. It would be the first time in the history of the 22-year-old act that some landowners would be granted blanket exemptions.
"These principles . . . reduce the conservation burden on small landowners and show the Administration is serious in its efforts to balance the rights of individual landowners with the community's right to a healthy environment," said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
The aim of the Clinton Administration proposals is to defuse the escalating war over the Endangered Species Act--the nation's most powerful conservation regulation--that pits the rights of private landowners against protection of vanishing natural resources. About 800 animals and plants, including the bald eagle, grizzly bear and desert tortoise as well as dozens of lesser-known rodents, insects and fishes, are listed as endangered or threatened with extinction.
The law has been increasingly unpopular with business groups, builders and farmers, especially in California, where it has triggered heated feuds over development on the habitats of the gnatcatcher in Orange, San Diego and Riverside counties, the Stephens kangaroo rat in Riverside County and several dozen farmland species in the San Joaquin Valley.
Last week, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation that requires federal agencies to reimburse private landowners for losses or to buy their land when the Endangered Species Act or federal wetlands rules cause their properties to decline in value.
The Administration's concessions, however, do not seem to go far enough to resolve the concerns of many business leaders and conservative lawmakers who believe the Endangered Species Act is harming the economy by slowing development and eliminating jobs.
"It's nice we got their attention and they recognize there are fundamental flaws in the current act, especially in the way it treats landowners," said Skip Schmidt, legislative advocate for the California Building Industry Assn. "But as much as I can applaud them trying to give some relief to owners with less than five acres, owners with greater acreage have just as much per-acre risk as the small landowner. I want to see them both get some relief from the act."
Some environmental leaders on Monday strongly criticized the proposals.
"It shows this Administration would rather shoot craps with extinction than stand up to the alarmists and extremists in Congress that want to gut the act," said Nathaniel Lawrence, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. "I wonder what other laws this Administration is willing to suspend for people who are only going to trash five acres of the environment at a time."
Other environmentalists, however, applauded the Administration, including John Sawhill, president of the Nature Conservancy, who commended the plan for "its fairness, flexibility and emphasis on good science."
Babbitt said the strategy would resolve many of the concerns of private landowners without dooming species to extinction. He called the House Republicans' mandatory compensation bill "nothing but a thinly disguised attack on America's great natural resources" because there are no federal monies available to reimburse landowners.
"A heavy-handed approach to change, as some on the Hill are suggesting, will only diminish our ability to protect species that are an essential part of the American landscape. Americans don't want that to happen," Babbitt said Monday.
"As reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act gets under way, any proposal for change must pass an important series of tests. Will it kill bald eagles? Will it lead to the deaths of whooping cranes or grizzly bears?"
Babbitt acknowledged that the law has "caused difficulty" for some small landowners, who in some cases must pay for expensive surveys and give up some of their land to provide habitat for rare animals.
"Most species won't survive on small tracts of land and it's not fair to tie up small landowners," he said.
In addition, the Clinton Administration's guidelines would put more burden of proof on environmentalists and scientists to provide data supporting a need to propose a species for the list. The process of listing species has become increasingly combative, with the effort to list the gnatcatcher entangled for years in litigation between Southern California developers and the Interior Department.