More than 30 years ago, President Richard Nixon signed into law the Endangered Species Act, one of the most comprehensive and ambitious wildlife conservation measures ever enacted.
VOA's Rosanne Skirble has been examining the continuing debate over the law's impact, and taking a closer look at some of the ongoing efforts to bring endangered species back from the brink. She reports how the future of America's wildlife heritage could itself be endangered by partisan politics.
Laws begin in committees in the U.S. Congress. Richard Pombo heads the House Resources Committee, which oversees the Endangered Species Act. A few weeks ago he called members to vote on two new bills intended to reform the Act. "The Committee will come to order," he says. "At our last markup we averaged two minutes and nine seconds per bill to finish with a record 31 pieces of legislation favorably reporting. While we have only two bills on our current agenda, HR 2933 and HR 1662, the issues they raise will require a much more deliberate process."
Which takes several hours and is riddled with polite conflict. Mr. Pombo is an outspoken critic of the Endangered Species Act. He says it fails to recover species, it provokes nuisance lawsuits, and it infringes on property rights.
The bills consider changes to habitat designations and the science rules required for listings. Republicans applaud the measures. Democrats oppose them.
Democrat Jay Inslee from Washington State says the proposed legislation would make it harder to save species at this critical time.
"We are now seeing in our lifetime, in our kids' lifetime, the rate of extinction, 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than any period of time since humans arrived on earth," he says. "So, here we Homo sapiens are sitting here after just a few thousand generations responsible for the sixth greatest period of extinction and what is the Natural Resources Committee doing in the House of Representatives about it? We are weakening the one bill that is dedicated by the American democracy to do something about this problem."
"Contrary to what Mr. Inslee said there is no attempt on the part of Mr. Cardoza or by this committee to gut, eviscerate, roll back the Endangered Species Act," adds Mr. Colombo. "If Mr. Inslee truly cared about recovering species, he would try to work forward so that we could move forward on this act so that it became more effective on recovering species instead of spouting a lot of the rhetoric that I had hoped that we had put aside over the last several years. [Is there] further discussion on the amendment? [The Chair recognizes] Mr. Inslee."
"Thank you," Mr. Inslee responds. "First I want to express at least my sentiment that I am willing to work with Mr. Pombo or anyone else on trying to improve this act at any time. And that is why I am supporting Mr. Rahall amendment because it does bring some improvements to the act by bringing some additional clarification."
The Committee rejects the amendment proposed by Mr. Rahall, a Democrat, and votes to send the bills on to the House. A similar Senate bill is expected to face tough scrutiny. No final action is expected before the presidential election in early November.
Robert Irvin observes the stalemate in the U.S. Congress. He is conservation director for World Wildlife Fund, a global organization that promotes wildlife protection. He says that Americans interested in saving their country's endangered species must move beyond the heated rhetoric of environmental politics.
"It is going to require that people set aside their preconceptions. On the part of environmentalists they are going to have to recognize that not all businesses and not all landowners want to harm endangered species, indeed the vast majority would like to do good things for wildlife. And on the part of business and landowners, they need to recognize that environmentalists are not out to stop progress, that in fact they are out to save species and save habitats as an investment for our future."
Mr. Irvin proposes a National Commission on Endangered Species Conservation. The Commission would represent all stakeholders in the debate including business, industry and community leaders, government agencies, private landowners, and academicians.
"The purpose of the commission would be to look at what it is going to take if we are really serious about saving endangered species and how do we do it in a way that makes it easier for business and property owners to comply with the law," he explains. "The changes that would be proposed may be to the Endangered Species Act, but may be to a host of other federal land management laws as well because really the Endangered Species Act is the safety net, it is the last resort when all these other federal laws have failed to do the job to protect the species and so we have to look at the comprehensive set of laws that govern the conservation of wildlife in this country if we are really going to break through and make progress on species conservation."
Mr. Irvin says initiatives that balance economic development and species protection are gaining support across the country. In North Carolina, for example, a U.S. military base and a group of local farmers have joined conservationist in a program to provide safe harbor for the Red Cockaded Woodpeckers.
In rural Collier County, Florida, citizens faced with a building moratorium have produced a plan that allows development only as endangered panther habitat is protected.
Despite the controversy that has surrounded the implementation of the Endangered Species Act, its co-author U.S. Congressman John Dingell says the law continues to be a powerful tool for preserving our natural heritage.
"We do not have the right to extinguish forms of life. We don't know where the cure for cancer or SARS might lie. So protecting these species is a very important matter," he says.
Important Mr. Dingle says not only to the survival of thousands of endangered plants and animals, but important to our own survival as well.