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We can preserve the environment and still protect citizens from the federal government unfairly `taking' from the value of their land

WHEN the government denies a private-property owner the right to use his or her own land for a harmless activity, I believe a ``taking'' has occurred. It's wrong - morally and legally.

The Fifth Amendment states, ``nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.'' The amendment does not go on to say, ``except in the case of an endangered species or except in the case of wetlands.''

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When you lose your job in the state of Washington because of an owl, your shrimp boat in Louisiana because of a turtle, or your home in California because of a rat, the cost of environmental protection hits home. Conflicts now exist all across the country between environmental protection and property rights.

I support the goals of our nation's environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act (ESA). But the law must also allow economic growth and respect private property rights.

My bill, the Private Property Owners Bill of Rights (HR 3875), strikes such a balance. With the help of lead co-sponsor Rep. Jack Fields (R) of Texas, we have built a broad-based bipartisan congressional coalition. In just a few months, 162 members of the United States House of Representatives, of both parties, have added their names.

Most major environmental legislation is bottled up because of pressure from extremist environmental groups. I hope to break this legislative logjam. My bill:

r Requires federal agencies to comply with applicable state and tribal laws relating to private property rights and privacy.

r Prohibits federal agencies that are implementing ESA or wetlands regulations from entering private property for the purpose of gathering information without written consent from the owner.

r Sets up an administrative appeals process for property owners confronted by adverse ESA and wetlands rulings.

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r Requires compensation to owners deprived of 50 percent or more of the fair market value or the economically viable use of property because of such rulings.

It's a simple concept. When the government takes your property to build a road or to preserve a wetland, it must pay for it!

Opponents have criticized my motives, saying I'm trying to protect big oil or timber companies. My answer is this: They don't need my help. They have the resources to fight the federal government in court. But most working Americans do not.

My commitment to this issue was born out of the horror stories that average, middle-class landowners shared with me.

This insanity came to a head last year during the California brush fires. Many people watched in dismay as their homes burned down because they were not allowed to dig around them and create fire breaks. Why? Because the US Fish and Wildlife Service summarily and arbitrarily determined that such precautions would disturb the habitat of the kangaroo rat. Imagine that. A rat! Something is fundamentally wrong when a rat's home is more important than an American's home.

All across the US, there are conflicts between environmental protection and property rights - often destructive conflicts. A recent editorial in the New Orleans Times Picayune stated, ``Environmentalists, clearly taken aback by this push, and themselves out of touch with their constituents, must acknowledge the concerns of private-property owners and join in efforts to address them.''

According to a recent national poll, more than 90 percent of Americans support efforts to protect private-property rights. Clearly, our federal government is out of touch with the people it should be serving.

The California Desert Protection Act, now pending before a joint House-Senate conference committee, contains my private-property-rights amendment. It was overwhelmingly approved, by a 2-to-1 margin, on the House floor. The full Property Owners Bill of Rights is separately awaiting a congressional hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.

American taxpayers are fed up with environmental extremism in this country. The showdown over private-property rights is coming. And it's coming soon.

* W. J. (Billy) Tauzin (D) of Louisiana is a member of the US House of Representatives.

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