The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has served the nation well as a last refuge for vanishing species since it was first enacted in 1973. But an effort to scuttle the act is now moving at breakneck speed through the US House of Representatives.
Last week, the chair of the House Resources Committee, Rep. Richard Pombo (R) of California, proposed changes to the act with a 74-page bill. The committee voted in favor and now the bill is poised for an immediate vote by the full House.
If it becomes law, Mr. Pombo's bill - which weakens current protections governing private and public lands - will be a disaster for endangered species and deepen existing divides on the issue. This is unfortunate because the time is ripe for a more moderate approach.
No one is fully satisfied with the ESA. It is not helping dwindling species enough, developers and mining and timber industries see it as impeding progress, and state officials think it intrudes on their autonomy. The current bill, however, focuses on relief for landowners to the exclusion of the interests of protected species. It misses the opportunity to offer moderate incentives to landowners to save, or improve habitat of endangered species, or involve states more in the development and enforcement of protective regulations.
The proposed changes to the ESA are centered on the premise that it is failing. Only a handful of species have recovered over the past 30 years to the point where they no longer need the law's protection. But that doesn't make the act a failure. Only nine species of the 1,300 listed as endangered since 1973 are now extinct. Rebounding takes time. By the time they get legal protection, species are typically reduced to critically low numbers.
Furthermore, a "recovered" rating requires confidence that the species will not decline again. For many species threatened by loss of habitat, there simply is no other protection.