- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The Endangered Species Act, now at the ripe old age of 30, remains a vigorous source of debate, although there are signs that the government and environmentalists are beginning to agree that its future lies in cooperation instead of confrontation.

Instead of relying on a federal regulatory hammer, both sides are shifting toward incentives for landowners who participate in protection programs.

“I think 30 years hence, it’s going to be the standard way of operating,” said Crain Manson, assistant interior secretary for wildlife.

William Robert Irvin of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said there is a shared interest in promoting incentives.

“I think it is the future,” Mr. Irvin said. “You can get a lot farther with carrots than sticks.”

Despite the talk of cooperation, strong debate continues between the government and environmentalists over the future of the act, which was signed into law on Dec. 28, 1973.

Conservation groups accuse the Bush administration and Republican controlled Congress of assaults on the act, including easing protections on military bases and national forests, and seeking to repeal a provision requiring the Fish and Wildlife Service to designate critical habitat for endangered species.

The critical-habitat portion of the law has sparked numerous lawsuits from environmental groups pushing protective designations and the development groups that oppose them.

In May, Mr. Manson joined Fish and Wildlife officials in blaming the court battles for eating up funding and forcing the service to miss countless legally mandated deadlines.

Although Congress and the Bush administration have been criticized for underfunding the agency, Mr. Manson and House Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo, California Republican, discounted the argument.

Mr. Manson said the service is reluctant to make legally required designations because it doesn’t add a lot of environmental benefit, not because it lacks money.

Mr. Pombo has targeted the act for revision next year after a series of nationwide hearings.

“It has not been successful in terms of recovering endangered species, and it’s caused a lot of conflict with property owners,” he said.

Congress has not reauthorized the act since 1988. It’s funded instead on a year-to-year basis as critics and supporters spar over its future.

Yet Mr. Pombo, who has fought a running battle with environmental groups, said he thinks Congress finally could reauthorize the act based on a consensus that promotes more use of tools such as habitat conservation plans.

Such plans can shift the emphasis to managing large swaths of property to benefit an entire ecosystem, minimizing complaints that the act micromanages landowners to benefit a single endangered species sometimes to the detriment of other wildlife, Mr. Pombo said.

“Everybody sees the need to have an Endangered Species Act. We’ve been arguing for years what that [act] should look like,” Mr. Pombo said. “As long as we stick to the areas where there is consensus, I think we can move forward.”

Environmental Defense and the WWF tout similar measures such as safe-harbor agreements and candidate conservation agreements, which also promise property owners some regulatory freedom so long as they take steps to protect endangered species.

“Regulatory incentives really do result in landowners doing good things for their land,” without worrying that they’ll be punished for their good works, said Mr. Irvin of the WWF.

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