WASHINGTON – Smugglers of elephant ivory or endangered parrots may soon receive government compensation for seized illegal imports, according to Eastern Shore Rep. Wayne Gilchrest.
A bill by Rep. Don Young of Alaska, chairman on the House Resources Committee, to overhaul the Endangered Species Act would protect the trade of threatened animals and “reduce or eliminate protection for endangered species,” the Kennedyville Republican said.
To try to prevent the weakening of the act, Gilchrest has introduced his own bill, which is co-sponsored by Bethesda Rep. Constance Morella and seven other Republicans. His version upholds the current protections for endangered species but shifts some responsibility to states and private individuals.
The 1973 Endangered Species Act now protects 759 domestic animals and plants threatened with extinction. The species, listed by the secretary of interior, cannot be killed or destroyed. Their habitats are also protected from destruction or modification.
Young’s bill, introduced with California Republican Rep. Richard Pombo, would require the consent of landowners to designate parts of their property as critical habitat.
Fewer habitats would qualify under this bill, and geographically isolated populations of species would not be protected anymore if the species would likely survive elsewhere.
Both bills are pending before the House Committee on Resources. Votes have not been scheduled.
Gilchrest said Young’s bill would have “severe negative ramifications” for the protection of endangered species, especially due to the loss of critical habitats.
He also criticized the bill’s “cumbersome compensation scheme” for private landowners. Under the Young-Pombo bill, the government would have to pay property owners 20 percent of their lost profits and 50 percent of the value of lost property.
Gilchrest’s bill leaves the current definitions of endangered species and their habitats intact. It requires an analysis by the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether property owners should be compensated.
Gilchrest also wants to allow states to adopt endangered species programs. His bill provides incentives for states, counties and private property owners to start voluntary conservation programs.
“Probably the most significant shortcoming of the current Endangered Species Act is its failure to recognize that states and private landowners can be important allies in the fight to preserve biodiversity,” said Gilchrest.
The voluntary agreements he proposes would help property owners to protect species before they become endangered. If the population of the species continued to decline despite the implemented actions, landowners would not be subjected to further conservation requirements.
The bill would give states veto power over federal conservation programs conflicting with their own efforts, as long as they meet certain standards. “The federal government doesn’t have the sledge hammer,” Gilchrest said.
He said his legislation has a good chance of being passed. “We have a wide range of support. Much of the bill – if not all – is supported by the Western Governors Association, which is a fairly conservative group. We also have support from environmental groups and from some of the best scientists in the country. It’s a very reasonable and moderate proposal.”
Spokesmen for Young and Pombo disputed Gilchrest’s assessment of his bill’s chances.
“Our bill has 119 co-sponsors, Mr. Gilchrest’s eight,” said Michael Hardiman, Pombo’s press secretary. “That’s the only comment we have to make.”
Morella said Pombo’s support has been diminishing recently. “He’s at an impasse now.”
Steve Hansen, a spokesman for Young, said his boss would “take a close look” at Gilchrest’s bill to find common ground and to see where his own legislation can be improved. “He said his bill is not etched in stone,” said Hansen.
Both bills elicited strong reactions outside Congress.
“Gilchrest’s bill is worse than the status quo,” said Sally Jefferson, associate manager of domestic policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “It provides federal protection to species even before it has been determined whether they are endangered.”
She was referring to a section that allows states, local governments and individuals to establish conservation plans for habitats of candidate species, which might be listed as endangered later.
Jefferson said the Chamber of Commerce strongly supports the Young-Pombo bill because it protects property rights.
Environmentalists praised Gilchrest for his legislation. “It’s a brave political move,” said Marchant Wentworth, Washington representative for the Sierra Club. “We stop short of completely endorsing the bill, but it’s a good step forward from the right-wing extremist Young-Pombo bill.” – 30 –