Critical act now endangered

The House’s overhaul completely undermines the role of science.

Let’s hope the U.S. Senate places more value on biodiversity than the House of Representatives displayed last week after voting to overhaul the Endangered Species Act. Arguably the act is the most important piece of environmental legislation in U.S. history.

Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., managed to get an offensive bill passed Thursday, which eliminates “critical habitat” and lengthens the amount of time it takes to protect areas needed by endangered and threatened wildlife. It also requires the government to pay landowners for land they “plan to develop” if for environmental reasons it cannot be developed.

If that isn’t bad enough, the bill also gives the secretary of the interior the power to make scientific judgments regarding endangered and threatened species’ habitat requirements. This completely undermines the role of good science in determining how to best conserve threatened species.

This bill reeks of pandering to landowners and developers, and the blatant disregard it shows for North American wildlife is reprehensible. While hard-core Republicans claim the current Endangered Species Act is obsolete, their real motivation seems seated more in payoffs for their political supporters than protection of irreplaceable habitat. How many owners of “critical habitat” will suddenly want to develop the land just to get a bonus from the federal government?

Moderate Republicans and most Democrats in the House tried to rally for a compromise but failed. Now it is up to the Senate to reject this attempt to deflower some of the United States’ most important wilderness areas. The head of the Senate panel overseeing this bill, Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., has shown concern. He might be one of our wildlife’s only hopes for salvation.

The Endangered Species Act is one of the strongest environmental laws in existence and has already saved a dozen species from extinction. Weakening it and making critical habitat a business opportunity will only open more doors for environmental shortcuts in future legislation and lessen the value of biodiversity in the eyes of lawmakers.