Bye, bye bird? Environmentalists say Pombo's bill would further endanger rare species like the California gnatcatcher.

Is This Act Endangered?

A powerful critic of the 32-year-old Endangered Species Act (ESA) has laid out his plan to substantially loosen existing restrictions on U.S. landowners and businesses. Environmentalists say the measure, introduced yesterday by Representative Richard Pombo (R-CA), would cripple protections for imperiled species.

The proposal by the chairman of the House Resources Committee would ease regulations by, for example, allowing projects that might harm endangered species to go forward unless federal agencies object. Pombo also wants to compensate landowners for the fair market value of any development or other activity that would impact endangered species that the government has rejected. The bill doesn't estimate the annual cost of such payments involved.

In a major change, the bill would repeal a section of the act that instructs the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to designate so-called "critical habitat" for species, defined as the habitat necessary to help a species recover. Federal agencies now must consult with FWS or NOAA when any proposed action would impact critical habitat. Environmentalists fear that the change would lead to greater destruction of habitat.

The bill would also set higher scientific standards for getting species listed under the act. Currently, the FWS and NOAA are supposed to use the "best available science" in deciding whether to list a species and determine its status. Pombo's bill calls for the Secretary of the Interior to define what "best" means. Environmentalists say the secretary could set the bar prohibitively high, especially if little is known about a species. Congress intended the act to be precautionary, they argue, listing species if they appeared to be in danger of extinction.

Pombo has scheduled a hearing tomorrow and a committee vote the next day, with plans to take the bill to the full House next week. In contrast to that speedy path, the Senate has no companion legislation and has traditionally been much more supportive of existing protections in the act.