Endangered Act?

The future of the Endangered Species Acté─ţsans Pombo. By Diana Lind

Ever since it was enacted 34 years ago, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has been a point of contention between environmentalists and developers. When it has benefited animals such as graceful bald eagles or brightly hued tropical fish, the program has been praised by citizens and politicians alike. But what about the kit fox, a decidedly more homely looking creature? Should it have rights to a person’s private property?

This was the question that rankled longtime congressman Richard Pombo (R-CA) whose ranch butted up against land prime for the rehabilitation of that endangered species. And he devoted a large part of his 14-year career in Congress to arguing that property owners, rather than endangered species, were victims. Over the years, Pombo worked to reverse government spending that protected endangered species. In his position as the chairman of the House Resources Committee he played the card of energy independence to promote oil drilling in Alaska.

But the man who ran his reelection campaign as equal parts rancher and politician was finally ousted by Jerry McNerney (D-CA) this past November. One might have suggested that this defeat was just another part of the Democratic sweep of Congress if McNerney weren’t on the opposite end of the environmental spectrum from Pombo. An expert in wind engineering and renewable energy, McNerney said on his campaign website, “There is no issue that separates me more from Richard Pombo than environmental policy.”

Hopefully, the consequences of Pombo’s absence in Congress will be felt farther abroad than just the 11th District in California where he served. As the ESA has not been reauthorized since 1992, some environmental groups hope that because many positions in Congress have changed hands, the act will once again become a priority.

But the government entity that oversees the endangered species program, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), seems less than certain that Pombo’s leaving Congress will have much impact. Chris Tollefson, a spokesman for the FWS, says, “As an agency we would like to see a reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act go forward. But we’re going to have to see what happens.” That wait-and-see approach means the agency won’t be launching any fresh campaigns (beyond what it ordinarily does) to try to nudge policymakers.

Likewise, the Endangered Species Coalition sounds just barely more optimistic. On its website, the non-partisan coalition relishes the defeats of Pombo and Charles Taylor (R-NC), a congressman who authorized an increase in logging national forests, but also notes the loss of Lincoln Chaffee (R-RI), who vigorously supported the ESA.

“In the recent election we lost a lot of moderate Republicans and we gained some conservative Democrats,” said Leda Huta, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition. “It’s not the best environment for reauthorizing the act.” Rather than focus solely on the reauthorization of the ESA, the group is looking at the usefulness of land-owner incentives that appeal to those eager to turn over private property to species rehabilitation.

But a very promising fact can’t be ignored: Pombo will no longer be chairman of the Resources Committee and will be succeeded by Nick Rahall (D-WV). Rahall, an adamant preservationist who served on the committee for 30 years, will likely institute a 180-degree change in environmental direction. In his address to the committee upon accepting the role of chairman, Rahall said, “Will we seek to reform? Yes, certainly.”