Gov. Pete Wilson on Friday unveiled a package of proposals to alter California's Endangered Species Act, a move described as "outrageous" by environmentalists who say the changes would gut protections for the state's rare plants and animals.
Declaring that it is time to bring "fundamental reform to the law," the Wilson Administration submitted to the Legislature proposals to make it tougher to place a species on the endangered list while easing burdens on landowners or developers with rare creatures on their property.
"The Endangered Species Act is a law with the best of intentions, but one that yields unsatisfactory environmental benefits and far too many unintended, adverse economic consequences," Resources Secretary Douglas Wheeler said in a statement. "There are better ways to achieve both environmental and economic goals."
Wheeler said the changes would inject "common sense procedures into the act." But environmentalists attacked the proposals and accused Wilson of sacrificing the safety of California's plants and animals for political support from business and development interests.
On Thursday, Wilson announced the formation of an exploratory committee to promote his candidacy for President. Efforts by Republicans to modify the federal Endangered Species Act are under way in Congress, and it is expected to be a major issue in the 1996 presidential campaign.
Mike Paparian, a top Sierra Club official, said Wilson's plan means the governor "wants to allow the killing of endangered species," a move he said is driven in part by Wilson's drive for the GOP presidential nomination.
"The beneficiaries are agribusiness, large developers and large oil companies," Paparian said. "These are the very same constituencies that have traditionally financed his campaigns."
Adopted in 1984, the California Endangered Species Act protects 213 plants and 73 animals, including the bald eagle, the San Joaquin kit fox and the brown pelican. Several endangered species, including the California bighorn sheep and the Swainson's hawk, are protected only under state law and not under the federal act, Paparian said.
Under Wilson's proposals, all species on the state list would be subject to re-examination under new, tougher standards that require "clear and convincing evidence" that the species is in peril. Joel Reynolds, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, called that requirement "outrageous" and said it would be a "massive and costly bureaucratic burden."
The governor's changes also would allow the state Fish and Game Commission to defer the listing of a species that is already listed under federal law or enjoys "sufficient" populations outside California.
In addition, Wilson would remove penalties for landowners who destroy habitat that may be critical to a species' survival. "Basically, that means they're suggesting that fish don't need water and birds don't need trees," said Darryl Young, consultant to the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Wildlife.
Times staff writer Max Vanzi contributed to this story.