Statement of Environmental Defense on House Passage of "Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act"

Following the passage of Rep. Richard Pombo's (R-CA) endangered species bill in the House, Environmental Defense urged the Senate to carefully analyze the bill's significant flaws before acting on this issue.

All text can be attributed to Michael Bean, wildlife chair at Environmental Defense (202-572-3312).

The House of Representatives today approved the first major changes to the Endangered Species Act since 1988. Given the long time that has elapsed since the last major amendments, one might have expected the House to consider its actions carefully. In fact, it acted with a haste generally reserved for dire emergencies. The bill it passed was unveiled on September 19, followed two days later by a single committee hearing, and only a week after that by a floor vote. There was not ample time to adequately scrutinize the bill's many flaws.

A Cautious Approach Needed in Senate
The Senate would be well advised to proceed more cautiously, for the House-passed bill contains a number of damaging measures. Foremost among them is a provision that puts future development projects beyond the reach of the law if the chronically under-funded Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) cannot meet its deadlines for reviewing project impacts. If the FWS acts in time and determines that a project will be harmful to endangered species, then the project proponent can demand to be compensated — at taxpayer expense — for not pursuing the project. That is a no-lose proposition for developers: they get either immunity from regulation or payments for not harming endangered species.

How likely is it that FWS will meet the House's new project review deadlines? Here's one clue: 31 of the 33 species added to the endangered species list by FWS since the Bush administration took office were added after the statutory deadline for a decision had passed. Two-thirds of them were more than a year late.

The choice of immunity or payoff is also a sure-fire way to bring an end to the sort of long-range, comprehensive planning that places like San Diego County, California; Pima County, Arizona; Clark County, Nevada; Austin, Texas and others have undertaken in response to the "habitat conservation planning" provisions of the Endangered Species Act. The previous Secretary of Interior, Bruce Babbitt, showed how the intelligent use of this feature of the Act could spark some creative compromises that allowed both development and conservation to happen. But Babbitt is gone now, and so apparently is any interest in either creative use of the law or compromise. Today's vote in the House displays a winner-take-all mentality. Unfortunately, the losers are the nation's bald eagles, grizzly bears, ivory-billed woodpeckers and other endangered species.

An Opportunity for the Senate

The Senate has an opportunity to act more responsibly, and there is precedent to guide it. In 1978, roiled by a Supreme Court decision that halted construction of a pork barrel dam project in Tennessee because of its impacts on an endangered fish, the House passed a bevy of crippling amendments by a vote of 384 to 12.The Senate, insisting on a much more focused effort to fix the few problems that really existed, rejected virtually everything the House had done. The Endangered Species Act that emerged largely unscathed from that contest has helped whooping crane numbers increase ten-fold, has made possible the reestablishment of California condors in the Grand Canyon, wolves in Yellowstone, and black-footed ferrets in the Great Plains, and has helped restore bald eagle numbers from a few hundred pairs to over 8,000 pairs today in the continental United States. If successes such as these are to continue, the Senate must again reject the overreaching of the House.

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