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House approves legislation to overhaul Endangered Species Act

Private property rights could expand greatly

WASHINGTON -- The House passed legislation yesterday that could greatly expand private property rights under the environmental law that is credited with helping keep the bald eagle from extinction but also has provoked bitter fighting.

By a vote of 229 to 193, lawmakers approved an overhaul of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, perhaps the nation's most powerful environmental law. The law has led to contentious battles over species such as the spotted owl, the snail darter, and the red-legged frog.

The rewrite faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where Rhode Island Republican Lincoln Chafee, head of the panel that oversees the law, has expressed concerns about the House bill.

The bill would require the government to compensate property owners if steps to protect species thwarted development plans. It also would make political appointees responsible for some scientific determinations and would stop the government from designating ''critical habitat," which limits development.

The changes were pushed through by the chairman of the House Resources Committee, Representative Richard Pombo, a California Republican. Pombo, a rancher, contends the current rules unduly burden landowners and lead to costly lawsuits while doing too little to save plants and animals. ''You've got to pay when you take away somebody's private property. That is what we have to do," Pombo told House colleagues.

Many Democrats and moderate Republicans said Pombo's bill would eliminate important protections for species and clear the way for large handouts from the government to property owners.

The bill sets a ''dangerous precedent that private individuals must be paid to comply with an environmental law," said Representative Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the committee's top Democrat.

A White House statement yesterday supported the bill. But it noted that payments to private property owners could have a significant effect on the budget.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that those payments would be less than $20 million a year. The bill's opponents predicted a much higher total.

Environmentalists decried the bill's passage, while property rights advocates cheered. ''A critical mass is developing of people who are now aware of the problems that the existing Endangered Species Act imposes on landowners and communities and understands that it's counterproductive to recovering species," said Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association in Battle Ground, Wash.

Susan Holmes, senior legislative representative at Earthjustice, said the bill amounted to ''the death warrant for treasured American wildlife."

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