Friday, September 30, 2005

Property Rights Victory in House

The House of Representatives passed H.R.3824 by a vote of 229-193 yesterday, authorizing sweeping modifications to the 1973 Endangered Species Act. (Seattle Times: House approves major overhaul of Endangered Species Act). The measure is a major victory for property owners that have at times found their personal property rendered useless by the 1973 legislation.

Under the new legislation, which faces a rough road in the Senate, property owners must be compensated if the Endangered Species Act blocks development plans on their property. Congressman Richard Pombo (R-CA) summed it up nicely, "You've got to pay when you take away somebody's private property. That is what we have to do. The only way this is going to work is if we bring in property owners to be part of the solution and to be part of recovering those species."

Of course, I thought this was already guaranteed by the 7th Amendment: "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." That clause alone should have rendered the original 1973 version of the legislation unconstitutional.

The new measure is not without its critics. Representative Jay Inslee (D-WA) asked, "What is a fish without a river? What is an Endangered Species Act without protection?" I can answer that, congressman. It's unconstitutional, is what it is. An example of the absurdity in the old law was a thwarted development effort by the Wachusett Mountain ski area in Princeton, MA. Their plans to expand the slopes were blocked when a handful of trees in the area were found to be "old growth." There's no doubt that Wachusett should have been compensated for their loss of revenue.

Opponents are looking to Senator Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) to hold the bill up in committee when it reaches the Senate. Chafee has, not surprisingly, already voiced his opposition to the bill, and he heads the committee that oversees the Endangered Species Act. Environmentalists are certain this legislation will be an 2006 campaign issue, something that may help Republicans in the northwest. States like Oregon and Washington are still seething over the Spotted Owl fiasco and would definitely benefit from the new legislation.

At the heart of the issue is private property rights versus environmentalist concerns. I almost always come down on the side of the property owner in such conflicts. Preserving endangered species is all well and good, provided it does not put people out of work (as in the Spotted Owl case) or infringe on the rights of property owners (as in the Wachusett Mountain case.) Some balance is needed, and I believe this legislation goes a long way towards providing it.


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