"This bill is the most significant gutting of the Endangered Species Act ever."
U.S. Rep. Ed Case
Voted against proposed law
Isles’ reps split on change to nature law
The Endangered Species Act changes drop critical habitat
Hawaii's two congressmen split their votes on a bill to overhaul one of the nation's main environmental laws yesterday.
U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Urban Honolulu) angered some environmentalists by voting for a major change in the Endangered Species Act, which has protected rare plants and animals since 1973. Abercrombie issued a statement saying the current law has failed in species recovery.
Rep. Ed Case (D-Rural Oahu, Neighbor Islands) voted against the proposal.
"This bill is the most significant gutting of the Endangered Species Act ever," Case told the Star-Bulletin.
The proposed revision of the law passed the House of Representatives 229-193. It has yet to be considered by the Senate, where its fate is uncertain.
U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chaffee, a Rhode Island Republican whose committee oversees the law, has expressed concerns about the House bill.
A major problem with the existing law is that it allows the federal government to designate large areas of "critical habitat" for each endangered species without consultation with state agencies or private landowners, said Abercrombie spokesman Michael Slackman.
The process leads to lawsuits, Slackman said. "It has spawned horrendous amounts of litigation. It is to litigation what Puu Oo is to lava," he said. (The Puu Oo vent of the Kilauea volcano has been issuing lava since the 1980s.)
The version approved by the House ends designation of critical habitat and leaves designation of geographic areas needing protection to species recovery plans.
Such plans are already part of the existing law, but they cannot be trusted to protect land under the new bill, the Hawaii chapter of the Sierra Club warned in a statement critical of Abercrombie, who is usually aligned with environmentalists.
"Although bill proponents claim that habitat will be protected by recovery plans, such plans would be nonregulatory and difficult to enforce," the Sierra Club statement said.
In addition, critical habitats block the use by private landowners of their own land. Two versions of the bill proposed to remedy that, both promising payment to landowners for limits on their property.
A moderate version, supported primarily by Democrats, called for payment only for lands directly affected, Case said. Both he and Abercrombie initially voted for that version, but it failed.
The broader version that passed, supported primarily by Republicans, called for compensation for all lands belonging to a landowner, even lands not affected by protective requirements, Case said.
Abercrombie voted for the broader version while Case voted against it.
The problem is that there might be no protection if there is no money to pay landowners, and the Bush administration has been cutting environmental funding, Case said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.