updated 7/21/2004 7:28:35 PM ET 2004-07-21T23:28:35

The House Resources Committee voted Wednesday to make practicality a standard in designating areas off-limits to most development under the Endangered Species Act.

Supporters said the proposed changes would improve how endangered species and their critical habitats are designated. Environmentalists and some Democrats protested they would render key portions of the landmark law virtually meaningless.

“These aren’t minor tweaks we’re talking about,” said Marty Hayden, legislative director of Earthjustice. “These two bills are trying to cut holes in that safety net large enough that an elephant could fall through.”

One bill, by Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., would change how critical habitats necessary for the survival of a species are designated. Before such a designation could be made, officials would have to determine that it is “practicable.” Much development is prohibited on areas designated as critical habitat.

New review board?
The other bill, by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., would establish a peer review board, chosen by the interior secretary, to vet the collected scientific information on a species before it could be listed as endangered. The board would be composed of members recommended by governors and the National Academy of Sciences.

The bills were shepherded by the committee’s chairman, Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., a rancher and property rights advocate who has long sought to revise the 30-year-old Endangered Species Act.

Pombo has argued that the law now creates unreasonable regulatory hurdles for property owners while failing to help many species.

“There is no attempt on the part of Mr. Cardoza or this committee to gut, eviscerate or roll back the Endangered Species Act,” Pombo said. “It’s time we put aside the rhetoric that’s been going on for the past 15 years ... and try to work together to deal with some of the shortcomings that we have in the Endangered Species Act.”

Supporters said the changes would make listing species and designating habitat more logical, scientific and responsive to local residents. Opponents said they would erect roadblocks to listing new endangered species and make it easy for the government to avoid designating habitat critical to a species’ survival.

Senate not likely to adopt
“What is ’practicable’ to me might not be ’practicable’ to the secretary of the interior on a bad hair day,” said Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the committee’s senior Democrat.

Rahall offered a substitute measure that didn’t include the word “practicable,” but it was rejected.

Pombo acknowledged that getting either of the proposed changes through the Senate is “a long shot.”

More than 1,800 plants and animals are now listed as threatened or endangered. The Fish and Wildlife Service says 39 have been taken off the list over the years — 15 because they recovered and the others because they went extinct or for technical reasons.

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