- Setting the stage for the most sweeping restructuring of endangered species protections in three decades, the House Resources Committee yesterday approved legislation that would strengthen the hand of private property owners and make it harder for federal officials to set aside large swaths of habitat for imperiled plants and animals.
Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.), who has sought to revamp the Endangered Species Act for more than a decade, said the bill would make the landmark 32-year-old law more effective.
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The measure, which the panel approved 26 to 12 with eight Democrats voting aye, would require the government to compensate landowners if it declared some of their property off-limits to development to protect federally listed species, and to decide such cases within 180 days.
Real estate developers and property owners have hailed the bill as a long overdue rebalancing of the law, while environmentalists slammed it as undermining critical protections. Critics of the current law note that only a handful of the roughly 1,800 plants and animals listed over the past 30 years have fully recovered, while supporters counter that an equally small number have gone extinct during that period.
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The bill authorizes federal grants for property owners who voluntarily take steps to protect species, and would pay them for lost business profits on land the government sets aside for endangered and threatened plants and animals. It also would allow the interior secretary to set a scientific standard for declaring a species threatened or endangered, rather than asking outside scientists to make judgments on a case-by-case basis.
Coming on the heels of the passage of Measure 37 in Oregon, the new ESA reform bill offers more evidence that the property rights movement is making significant inroads in their fight against regulatory takings (when a government entity effectively "takes" private property without just compensation by over-regulating it). Why do regulatory takings matter here? Not only are they an afront to the property rights protections enshrined in the Fifth Amendment, but the ESA currently creates a counterproductive incentive structure: some owners of property with rare species habitat may chose to destroy the habitat in order to avoid the severe land use restrictions imposed by ESA. The new bill attempts to remedy the situation by incentivizing conservation and making sure that the public-at-large, not individual landowners, pay the costs associated with species preservation.