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Letter from Dan Keppen, Family Farm Alliance Executive Director, to his board regarding Pombo's ESA reform, 7/8/05

Since coming to Congress in 1992, Rep. Richard Pombo has sought to change the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Last week, Pombo's staff at the Resources Committee confirmed that Committee members will present an ESA reform bill by mid-July. According to committee staff, the bill will include money or tax breaks for property owners who lose financially due to ESA enforcement, as well as a greater role for states and more rigorous demands on planners for species recovery. These developments come in the wake of the defeat of two bills in the previous congressional session. Rep. Dennis Cardoza's (CA) Critical Habitat Reform Act would have forced the Fish and Wildlife Service to give greater weight to economic factors when it designates critical habitat. Rep. Greg Walden's (OR) Endangered Species Data Quality Act would have changed the standards for what types of scientific measurements can be used in designation habitat. Committee staff predicts that the spirit of both will be included in the bigger package.

The news of Rep. Pombo’s intentions has sparked fresh debates and interests on both sides of the issue are gearing up for a battle. Last month, a coalition of 53 groups began to circulate a letter in support of Pombo's ESA efforts. The letter includes the names of several prominent activists on the political right, including former rock star Ted Nugent. It charges that the ESA has weakened national security by placing portions of military bases off limits. It also cited Operation Gatekeeper, a stalled proposal to put fences and surveillance cameras on a section of the Mexican border.

Predictably, activists in the environmental community are calling the proposed legislation another attempt to “gut” and “dismember” the ESA. According to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) – an activist organization that has employed the ESA to drive litigation throughout the West – Pombo’s idea “does precious little to help species recover”. CBD moans that it “eliminates essential habitat protections, buries wildlife agencies under a mountain of costly, inefficient bureaucracy, and encourages industry groups to paralyze the government with lawsuits over Byzantine paperwork rules”.

So, a fight is shaping up. The House Resources Committee on June 22 held a hearing in Washington, D.C. regarding the impact of the ESA on water supplies. I represented the Alliance on the witness panel, along with several other interests with Alliance ties, including: Russ Brooks (Pacific Legal Foundation); Tom Myrum (Washington State Water Resources Association); Dan Nelson (San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority); Bennett Raley (former Assistant Interior Secretary); and Chris Udall (Agribusiness Council of Arizona). Elizabeth Birnbaum of American Rivers offered up a slightly different perspective, and became an appealing (albeit poised) target for Chairman Radanovich (CA), Rep. Greg Walden (OR), and Rep. Stevan Pearce (NM).

Other Members of Congress in attendance included Barbara Cubin (R-WY), Cathy McMorris (R-WA), J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ),  Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Janet Napolitano (D-CA), Mark Udall (D-CO), George Miller (D-CA), Dennis Cardoza (D-CA) and Jim Costa (D-CA).

The hearing was noteworthy for the degree of interaction that occurred between the panelists and the Committee members. Reps. Radanovich and Walden were particularly effective in describing the hypocrisy evident in ESA implementation in the East and the West. For example, while agency regulators in Washington, D.C. are apparently willing to administer the ESA in a manner that allows important bridge and water projects to proceed, fishery biologists in the Klamath Basin wield the ESA in a way that nearly shuts down an entire community.  

“Back east, no one suggests that cities call themselves back to pre-development levels,” said Bennett Raley. 

While Reps. Miller and Napolitano alternated throwing hard ball questions at the panelists – Dan Nelson, executive director of the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority in California, did an excellent job parrying the intended blows – the strong theme of the day was the “East-West” argument set by Radanovich and Walden.   

Our testimony focused on individual impacts of the ESA, and is built upon personal observations noted by farmers and lenders here in the Klamath Basin, since the 2001 water curtailment. We offered up improved peer review and a more open public process as solutions to help modernize the ESA.







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