A Political Noah's Ark Fights Wildlife Bill

When the Safeway supermarket chain wanted to set up a distribution warehouse outside the Central Valley town of Tracy a few years back, its plans were confounded by the presence of the kit fox, an endangered species.

The company had started construction after getting approval from county and state officials. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stepped in and ordered a habitat mitigation plan, nearly sinking the entire project and its 1,000 jobs.

The warehouse was eventually built on land several miles away after Safeway purchased its development rights. But the episode did not endear the 1973 Endangered Species Act to the local citizenry.

"It was seen as a huge intrusion," said Rep. Richard W. Pombo. "A lot of it didn't make common sense to the guys."

Pombo, a fourth-generation rancher and member of the City Council at the time, seized on the property rights issue to propel himself to Congress two years later under the campaign banner, "He's one of us."

Reelected to his second term in 1994, Pombo was named chairman of a Republican task force to overhaul the Endangered Species Act in light of his devotion to the property rights crusade.

Environmentalists were aghast: Pombo overseeing a rewrite of their hallowed law is the ultimate fox-in-the-henhouse scenario.

And now, in an interesting blend of politics and religion, Pombo is under attack by a group of evangelical Christians who see his efforts to rein in the landmark law as an affront to God.

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Pombo's bill, coauthored with Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the House Resources Committee, calls for the government to compensate private property owners for land use losses and gives them a greater voice in the conservation of critical habitats.

The environmental lobby says this approach eviscerates the 1973 law.

But to Pombo and other critics of the law, his bill is simply a return to regulatory sanity.

"The law punishes private property owners for having endangered species on their property, which in turn has caused people to fear the Endangered Species Act," Pombo said.

This, critics of the law say, breeds the so-called "shoot, shovel and shut up" mentality when property owners discover an endangered species lurking on their lands.

Rather than "command and control" from Washington, Pombo wants an incentive-based law that rewards property owners for good stewardship of the wildlife habitat on their land.

After much gnashing of teeth, the bill came out of committee last year.

But it and a similar measure in the Senate now hang in limbo.

Polls show that voters worry that the GOP is too eager to roll back environmental protections, and in an election year, Republicans are leery of fooling with the law that saved Smokey Bear and the bald eagle.

"The president won't sign it, regardless of what we do," sighed Pombo this week.

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Pombo knew from the outset that the battle to revise the law would bring out the environmentalists' heaviest guns.

But little did he anticipate locking horns with a group of evangelical Christians, who cite the story of Noah and the Ark as the world's first endangered species act.

"There are a number of scriptural texts, all throughout Jewish and Christian traditions, that place explicit emphasis on the fact that the creatures of the natural world were made by God and reflect his glory," professor Jeffrey Schloss said from his office in the biology department of Westmont College in Santa Barbara. "So to negligently or willfully eliminate them is wrong."

Schloss is a member of the Evangelical Environmental Network, which includes 90 colleges and 1,000 churches whose members adamantly oppose any reduction of environmental protections for threatened plants and animals.

After group members brought along a live cougar for a news conference last month, Pombo and Young opened fire in a letter raising questions about the network's honesty.

Remember, this is Washington. When poked, you poke back, Bibles or no.

"Americans expect religious leaders to abide by a higher standard and this is all we're asking--keep the debate honest," Pombo and Young wrote.

"They called into question whether we were using the pulpit and the Christian religion to promulgate lies," Schloss said. "We were very surprised."

Pombo wasn't.

"The 'Big Greens' are good at playing this game. They go out and find a group, or create a group and fund a group and send it into Washington to generate the kind of press they did," he said. "They are a front group for the big environmental lobby."

Schloss regrets the sharp words.

"This started out more adversarial than we'd hoped," he said. "Our bottom line hope is to meet with them privately to reason and discuss the differences that we have."

Bridging the gulf could require the patience of Job.

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