Senator places hold on bill to amend ESA

November 19, 2002

E&E Daily

By Natalie M. Henry, Environment & Energy Daily staff writer

The Senate was expected to take up a wildlife bill under unanimous consent this week when consent, at least off Capitol Hill, is anything but unanimous. But an anonymous senator has placed a hold on the bill, apparently due to concerns from farming, ranching and property rights advocates who fear the measure will expand the Endangered Species Act to further limit private property rights, while also jeopardizing water rights. Environmental groups support the bill.

S. 990, introduced by Sen. Robert Smith (R-N.H.), authorizes $150 million for a new grant program for private landowners seeking to make changes on their land that could help ESA-listed species -- threatened, endangered and even those on the candidate list. The landowner would apply for the grant to the Interior or Commerce Department and, through a species recovery agreement, the landowner would agree to perform a certain action and the government would pay for all or part of it. Any action required by another agreement would not be eligible, according to a Senate staffer.

The Senate originally passed S. 990 last December, also under unanimous consent, and sent it to the House, where it languished for months until retiring House Resources Committee Chairman James Hansen (R-Utah) brought it to the floor at 2 a.m. Friday. His committee held neither a hearing nor a vote on the legislation.

According to sources, several Republican committee members opposed the bill. Opposition was scarce on the House floor, as Hansen attached a number of smaller bills favored by Republican and Democratic Resources Committee members (Environment & Energy Daily, Nov. 18). Environmental groups also favored a number of the bills added to S. 990, including one providing $25 million for an international grant program for sea turtles, a nutria eradication program and a number of wildlife refuge acquisitions and changes.

Hansen removed one part of S. 990, a provision amending the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act, because it was too similar to the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, according to the committee. CARA is a controversial bill to dedicate consistent federal revenue for species conservation.

The Senate staffer said the ESA language authorizing species recovery agreements was also taken from CARA, though that was not the part of CARA generating controversy. S. 990 includes no mandatory funding at all, instead requiring annual appropriations. "This is not CARA in any way," the staffer said.

The American Land Rights Association maintains that S. 990 would amount to the first changes to ESA in 14 years, all without any recorded votes or hearings. Mike Hardiman, a lobbyist for ALRA, also criticized Hansen for bringing up the bill in the wee hours of the night when few were looking, and adding a number of other measures that many members on both sides of the aisle wanted.

Hardiman said the text of the bill would result in more private land regulation. "It changes the text of the Endangered Species Act to cantilever out so they can regulate God-knows-how-much-more land," he said. Creating a new species at-risk category will mean more regulations, Hardiman said. Another group, Defenders of Property Rights, agreed, saying species recovery agreements would be another way the government could keep landowners from performing otherwise legal activities on private land in the name of species conservation.

John Kostyack of the National Wildlife Federation said S. 990 does not mean more regulations to protect candidate species, or species at-risk.

Rather, S. 990 would provide money to private landowners for any conservation-minded activity that would help a candidate species and thereby help the species avoid becoming threatened or endangered, which helps the landowner maintain his or her property value.

Keeping candidate species off the list "is one concept there's always been broad consensus around," Kostyack said.

The American Farm Bureau Federation is concerned about the changes to ESA but is focusing more on threats to water rights in the bill. Title II, which NWF also supports, authorizes $50 million to provide grants to states working to protect watersheds and private lands. The Farm Bureau says the grants would allow states to buy water rights, a concept the bureau fought long and hard against last year when Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) introduced the same concept to the farm bill.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association is also concerned with both the water rights and ESA provisions. However, according to a spokesman for the association, NCBA has not decided whether or not the ESA changes are incompatible with the goals of NCBA's members. If they are, the spokesman said NCBA will be looking at ways it could make its own changes to ESA within S. 990.

Both NCBA and the Farm Bureau sent letters to the speaker of the House and the entire Resources Committee last week, before Hansen brought the bill to the floor, asking to have an open debate on the bill and not pass it by unanimous consent, according to a House staffer.

A Senate staffer confirmed that an anonymous senator has put a hold on S. 990. According to another Senate staffer, only the senator that places the hold can lift the hold, and if she or he does not lift the hold before the end of session, the bill is dead.


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