House to consider rewrite of Endangered Species Act
Oakland Tribune and wire reports, May 22, 2003
The most significant rewriting of the nation's endangered species protection law in 25 years heads to the House floor this week, the result of a Pentagon request for exemptions that was broadened to include all federal agencies.
Citing military preparedness, Republican lawmakers are pushing a defense spending bill that would allow Marines to practice amphibious landings on beaches where migratory birds are nesting and allow Army infantrymen to dig foxholes in the vicinity of rare desert tortoises.
It would all but nullify critical habitat designations for federal agencies and tack a loophole to the Marine Mammal Protection Act to allow the Navy to test a high-frequency sonar linked to whale deaths around the world.
The expansion is the work of Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, chairman of the powerful House Resources Committee, and is due for a floor vote in the House on Thursday.
Critics such as Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Alamo, whose district abuts Pombo's, said Tuesday that their only hope in stopping the measure lies with the Senate, where a more moderate version of the bill exempts only military bases from the Endangered Species Act.
But the House bill offers no carte blanche, said Brian Kennedy, press secretary for the House Resources Committee.
Military bases would still need to draw up a general plan to manage threatened and endangered species found on particular bases. Those plans would need approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other state agencies.
What is avoided, he said, is a controversial critical habitat designation that can tie up an agency in court for years and divert resources from the agency's primary mission, be it defense or public housing.
"This is not something that applies to private property. It is not something that developers could exploit to build on wetlands or anything else," he said. "It's still the Endangered Species Act process. This is just a way of avoiding critical habitat designations and actually doing some species recovery."
Bolstering that point is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service itself, which has been beset by lawsuits from all sides over habitat designations and would just as soon be rid of the headache.
Testifying before Congress last month, Assistant Interior Secretary Craig Manson, who oversees Fish and Wildlife, called critical habitat "a process that provides little real conservation benefit, consumes enormous amounts of agency resources and imposes huge social and economic costs."
Wildlife officials declined to comment Tuesday on the proposal before the House.
The military owns or controls 25 million acres -- about the size of the Central Valley. More than 300 threatened or endangered species are found on military land.
Critics lambaste the rewrite as "gang warfare" on the nation's premier environment laws.
Democrats and environmentalists said Tuesday there is no evidence that military readiness has been harmed. The congressional General Accounting Office issued two reports within the past year stating it found no instances of environmental protections harming the nation's military readiness.
"Let me be very clear about this: this provision has nothing to do with military preparedness," Tauscher said in a statement. "Allowing the 'military readiness' imperative to be used arbitrarily, opportunistically and to achieve personal political agendas is a grave disservice to the American people and our responsibilities."
Moderate Republicans say they were slighted when pro-environment Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., was passed over in favor of conservative rancher and Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., as chairman of the House Resources Committee. Pombo is an outspoken critic of environmental regulations and does not support many of the wetlands protection laws that affect Delaware and Maryland.
Liberty Index Rating List - 2000 Session, U.S. House
Richard Pombo, Republican
11th District of California
RLC Status: Libertarian (score 77.5)
The Republican Liberty Caucus is a national GOP-affiliate organization formed in 1988 which represents individuals supporting limited government, personal freedom, and legislation based on constitutional principles and limitations. The RLC works to elect like-minded Republicans to public office at all levels and to influence public policy. - "The Conscience of the Republican Party"