Joy West of People for Puget
Sound, seen here at the Duwamish River, says the species act must be enhanced,
not eliminated. Environmentalists fear Congress will weaken the law and
undo years of protection.
Joy West kneels amid alder trees and snowberry bushes near the banks of Seattle's
Duwamish River, where native people have caught and eaten salmon since before
the ancient Egyptians were building pyramids.
Painstakingly, West tugs out knots of an invasive weed called "stinky
Bob" that has shown up and crowded out native Washington plants in recent
decades. It smells like a musty combination of garlic and licorice.
Over the roar of trucks hauling gravel and gasoline and who-knows-what, West explains
why she does volunteer work to keep the riverbank natural and help the threatened
Puget Sound chinook salmon.
West says she fears that the law protecting the fish -- the Endangered
Species Act -- is itself endangered as Congress reconvenes this week.
"If anything, the Endangered Species Act needs to be enhanced,
not toned down or eliminated," says West, who volunteers for People for
Puget Sound, an environmental group. "They're doing this because they don't
understand how important the Endangered Species Act is."
As Congress returns from its August recess, environmentalists and property-rights
activists are focused on Rep. Richard Pombo, a California rancher who is chairman
of the House Resources Committee. Later this month, Pombo is expected
to introduce legislation to overhaul the 32-year-old Endangered Species Act,
with House passage expected by year's end.
A draft of the bill that leaked earlier this summer "was comprehensive
in trying to undo what's been done over the last 30 years" to protect endangered
species, said Patti Goldman, Seattle-based lawyer for the Earthjustice law firm.
Before Pombo was tapped by Republican leaders to head the Resources Committee,
he was one of the most virulent attackers of the landmark law. For example,
Pombo in 1995 accused the "arrogant" U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
of trying "to make California farmers vassals of the federal government"
by enforcing the statute.
But now Pombo speaks of "updating" and "modernizing" the
"The act isn't working to recover species now," he said during a
recent visit to Snohomish County. "At the same time, it's caused a lot
of conflict with private property owners. We have to have an act that works
and eliminates a lot of those conflicts we have."
Pombo and other detractors say the law is broken because only a handful of
species have ever recovered to the point they no longer require protection.
Conservationists, however, point out that it's done a very good job of keeping
species from going extinct.
In negotiations with Democratic leaders, Pombo has been able to reach agreement
on a number of important points, said Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for the Resources
Committee. "Take a good, close, hard look at this (bill) when it comes
out," Kennedy said. "Put the partisan political hyperbole aside and
Pombo, he said, "does have all the best interests at heart in trying to
make this program work for species and for property owners and communities alike."
But the draft of the legislation that leaked earlier this summer outraged environmentalists
because, among many other changes, it would have set the stage for getting rid
of the Endangered Species Act in 2015 and reduced protection of forests and
streams where imperiled animals live.
Would a weakened Endangered Species Act take the steam out of salmon-recovery
efforts in the Pacific Northwest? That's what conservationists fear.
Said Dyche Kinder of The Moutaineers, a Seattle-based environmental and recreation
group: "They're going to take a hard run at it. I'm bracing for a major
Environmentalists aren't pushing the panic button yet. A major reason is that
even assuming Pombo's bill clears the House, it will head to the Senate, where
House-passed legislation to weaken the Endangered Species Act has died in the
This year, a key Republican senator, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, said he
wants to see a less-drastic overhaul pass Congress. As head of the Senate Fish,
Wildlife and Water Subcommittee and a Republican with strong environmental credentials,
Chafee's involvement could make a difference.
Chafee isn't planning to move as quickly as Pombo. It will be March before
a Government Accountability Office report ordered by Chafee is finished; it
is to examine what factors drive successful recovery of endangered species.
To build a coalition that could pass Endangered Species Act reform after years
of failed tries, Chafee presumably would have to give some to property-rights
advocates. Yet when he launched review of the law earlier this year, he told
reporters: "I am wading into this apprehensively. I don't want to do any
damage or weaken" the law.
Democrats could knock the Pombo legislation off course even before it gets
out of the House.
While environmental activists have judged Democratic support for the species-protection
law to be lukewarm in years past, this summer, House Democratic Leader Nancy
Pelosi greeted environmentalists who came to Capitol Hill to lobby with red-meat
"The Bush Administration takes the same approach to the Endangered
Species Act that it takes to all the other major environmental laws that protect
our air, water and lands. Their approach is to appease, abuse and assault,"
Not all private-property-rights crusaders were happy about what they saw in
Pombo's draft bill, said Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land
For one thing, the bill sets up a system of compensation for property owners
if at least half their property value evaporated because of endangered species
and related development restrictions. Some felt that allowing half a property's
value to be sacrificed in the name of endangered animals went too far, he said.
"If I find gold on my property, my property value goes up. If I find spotted
owls on my property, my property value goes down," Cushman said.
And he said that can backfire, even to the point that landowners secretly harm
the very species the government is trying to protect.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton, on a recent trip to the Nisqually River near
Olympia, told of a town hall meeting with South Dakota ranchers fearful of plans
to protect the prairie dog.
"They told me the first time that proposal became public, that year the
sale of prairie dog poison doubled," Norton said. "People were so
afraid that if they didn't get prairie dogs off their land right away, then
they were not going to be able to use their ranchlands in the future. That's
the kind of situation we face if we don't have the tools to work cooperatively
If instead a way could be devised to actually reward landowners when endangered
species are on their property, more would be restoring habitat, say supporters
of a change.
"You'd see an about-face by landowners, because they wouldn't have to
live in mortal fear that some bureaucrat is going to come out of the shadows"
to enforce the law, Cushman said.
It's on this point that private-property-rights advocates and environmentalists
may finally find some common ground. It's a theme that has recently begun to
come up repeatedly from those two groups as well as those in government: If
you want to preserve endangered animals on private land, be prepared to pay
for the privilege.
Although the law has been a target for change over the last decade, the biggest
push came just after Republicans took over leadership of Congress in the middle
of President Clinton's first term. That blew up in the Republicans' face, as
the public strongly supported the law.
"There's never been enough support in the Congress to abolish the Endangered
Species Act," said Bill Ruckelshaus, the Republican two-time former head
of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who is spearheading salmon-recovery
efforts in Western Washington. "There are enough Republicans in the middle
who care about the environment who can block a change if it amounts to something
that's going to devastate the law."
In negotiations that have led in many cases to salmon-protection strategies
endorsed by environmentalists as well as business interests, the Endangered
Species Act has rarely been mentioned directly, Ruckelshaus said.
But it's a major reason the negotiations kept going and produced salmon-recovery
plans throughout Western Washington, he said: "It's the gorilla in the