By a vote of 229 to 193, the U.S. House yesterday passed a bill that will completely cripple the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Enacted into law in 1973 by President Nixon, the ESA has been a cornerstone of America's environmental protection framework. The bill will move to the Senate next week.
Sponsored by Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA), a longtime foe of ESA, the new legislation is entitled the "Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act," or TESRA. It has triggered opposition across the entire spectrum of environmental organizations, who have united in an all-out effort to kill it in the Senate.
Finding the phrase "Recovery Act" more than ironic, Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen says TESRA "Runs counter to the very intent of the Endangered Species Act," containing "provisions that would severely cripple the federal effort to recover endangered plants and animals." 
Environmentalists point out that the ESA through the years has saved such species as the bald eagle, Florida manatee and the key deer. If Rep. Pombo's TESRA had been in effect then, not even the bald eagle would qualify for listing.
Drawing particular alarm is a provision that would end the protection of critical habitat necessary for the survival and recovery of plants and animals. Under the current law, areas designated "essential to the conservation of species" qualify as "critical habitat" and are subject to federal protection. Pombo's bill replaces "critical habitat" with a recovery plan that merely identifies areas that are valuable to the species, but does not mandate any specific federal protection.
Critics charge that this change takes away the most effective provision of the ESA. Species that live in designated critical habitat are twice as likely to survive as those without this form of protection. 
TESRA would also require taxpayers to pay developers and other landowners to comply with the ESA--in essence paying people not to break the law. It does this by requiring the Department of Interior to respond within 180 days to a landowner's request to implement a development plan; then, if the project is not permitted, the federal government must pay for any value that is allegedly lost. This, says Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity, literally "begs developers to plan
projects that allow them to extort money from the government." 
Moreover, while the current ESA requires that all decisions be based on the "best scientific and commercial information" available, the Pombo bill removes that authority from scientific experts and transfers it to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, whose record consistently favors commercial interests over environmental protection.
The Pombo bill also eliminates the protection for "threatened" species, i.e. species not yet considered endangered, but whose population levels have reached dangerously low levels. 
TESRA also makes it extremely difficult to list any species in the first place. In order for a species to be listed under TESRA, the Fish and Wildlife Service will have to duplicate and store all data on habitat decisions in every state in which the species exists. Environmental groups see this as a way to "bureaucratize a system that is already working fine." 
 "Assault on Endangered Species Act: Pombo Moving Legislation
that would Cripple Endangered Species Act," Defenders of
Wildlife, Sept. 19. 2005.
 "Pombo's Anti-Endangered Species Bill Leaked Again," Center
for Biological Diversity, Sept. 15, 2005.