The House of Representatives, in a major overhaul of the Endangered Species Act, voted Thursday to rescind existing protections on more than 150 million acres and to pay property owners whose land use is restricted because of an endangered species.
An alternative proposal, which would have offered incentives to landowners to help protect species on their property, failed to pass by 10 votes. Both eliminated the “critical habitat” provisions of the Endangered Species Act, with Democrats conceding that the litigation the law spawned had hurt its appeal.
The bill now goes to the Senate, where it may not be considered until next year. Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), a key subcommittee chairman, has said he would not favor eliminating the provisions requiring species protection in their critical habitats.
“If you gut the habitat, you’re really gutting the act,” he said.
In a daylong debate that included references to the glories of eco-tourism, biblical injunctions to preserve the creatures and the medicinal benefits of saving the Pacific yew tree, critics decried the compensation provision as an uncapped raid on the federal Treasury, while proponents accused environmentalists of putting bugs over people.
“We should protect endangered species, but not at the expense of our property owners,” said Rep. Henry Brown Jr. (R-S.C.).
Countered Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.): “What is a fish without a river? .... What is an Endangered Species Act without protection?”
The vote was 229 to 193, with 34 Republicans opposed and 36 Democrats in favor. In the California delegation, Democrats Jane Harman of Venice and Barbara Lee of Oakland did not vote, while Democrats Joe Baca of Rialto, Dennis Cardoza of Atwater and Jim Costa of Fresno joined all the state’s Republicans in voting for the bill. All other California Democrats were opposed.
Cardoza was one of the proposal’s key sponsors.
“Nearly half my county is designated as critical habitat,” he said after the vote. “They’re basically taking farmlands. We’re trying to create balance here.”
The overhaul was a victory for Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), who has been fighting the Endangered Species Act, first enacted in 1973, since he was elected in 1992.
“I’ve been fighting this since I got here,” said Pombo, author of a book advocating the primacy of property rights, “This Land is Your Land.”
Pombo said the bill would cancel existing critical habitat protection for hundreds of plants and animals on both public and private land and would require new habitat designations by new teams of “stakeholders,” including biologists, landowners, public officials and environmentalists. The U.S. secretary of Interior would have the final say.
Up to now, critical habitat determinations have been based on government findings, often in response to lawsuits brought by environmental groups.
Pombo acknowledged the new procedures would require redoing hundreds of existing critical habitat designations. “It is a do-over,” he said.
He argued that the new approach would provide better protection for species as well as landowners.
Critics disagreed, saying the bill would threaten the survival of such creatures as the northern spotted and right whales, peninsular bighorn sheep, Steller sea lion and desert tortoise.
“Habitat destruction is the main cause of extinction,” said Kieran Suckling, head of the Center for Biological Diversity. “This bill sends conservation back to the Stone Age.”
Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), who proposed the alternative amendment, criticized Pombo over a last-minute amendment that Miller said “eviscerated” the protection for species.
Democrats agreed there was room for improvement -- though they contested Republican arguments that the law, on the books for 32 years, had rescued 1% of the species identified as endangered. Instead, Democrats argued that the law had preserved 99% of the species because they had not gone extinct.
Several Democrats pointed to unexpected benefits of protecting endangered plants -- including some that provide crucial ingredients in medicines used to treat illnesses.
“We can do better than the current law, but it’s hard to do worse than the legislation being proposed,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who noted that the yew tree was a source for the breast-cancer drug Taxol. She also invoked the Bible’s book of Psalms to remind members that God created the creatures “and in wisdom we should preserve and protect them.”
Critics of the Republican overhaul said it would gut the protection that was already in trouble because of budgetary restraints. “This is a gun to the head, an attack on America’s great heritage,” said Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), who praised the economic benefits to his district of tourists coming to view “watchable wildlife.”
Philip E. Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, called the legislation a “sweeping attack” on a major environmental law. “With plummeting poll numbers, an indicted leader, two hurricanes, a war and an exploding budget deficit, House members have now added outright repeal of a major environmental law to their list of political liabilities,” he said.
Pombo was jubilant. “I think the vote today was great. It was a big victory.”
As for the Senate, he said, “I will compromise and work out differences [on critical habitat and other areas] as I move forward. The one thing that has to be in the final bill is property owners need to be protected.”
Neuman reported from Washington and Wilson from Los Angeles.