Pombo versus the Greens

By Bethell, Tom | The American Spectator, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Pombo versus the Greens


Bethell, Tom, The American Spectator


I DO MY BEST TO KEEP UP WITH ENVIRONMENTALISM, a field that has attracted a disproportionate share of lunatics. They went on the offensive 35 years ago, long before normal people could respond to the contrived crisis. Common sense was overwhelmed with new rulings, laws, and agencies. A destructive agenda, supported by spurious science, went unchecked for years.

One good thing that happened in response is that Rep. Richard Pombo became chairman of the House Resources Committee, with jurisdiction over many of the relevant issues. Of Portuguese descent, he was elected in 1992 and represents a central California district. He became chairman in 2003, over the heads of nine more senior members. Pombo's promotion, at the age of 42, is a sign that Republicans, at least on the House side, are getting their act together.

A difficult idea for people to understand is that the environment is better cared for when it is in private hands than when it is controlled by the government. Pombo not only understands this, he has written a book about it (This Land Is Our Land, 1996). One day recently I went to see him on Capitol Hill. All chairmen are busy, and as we spoke aides with slips of paper and anxious expressions kept peering into the committee room in the Longworth Office Building.

The old fanaticism has not so much waned as it has been bureaucratized, Pombo said. The Clinton administration staffed up government agencies with true believers who remain in place. Reforming the Endangered Species Act was on the top of Pombo's agenda-no easy matter when you consider the press coverage. Since we spoke, the Resources Committee voted to modify the law, requiring Interior to establish that species really are endangered before "listing" them, and making it harder to designate lands as "critical habitat." But even if the full House accepts the changes, they are "unlikely to make it through the Senate before adjournment," according to the Washington Post.

As it stands, the law is hazardous to endangered species. "If a species is listed in a particular area, farmers and ranchers start managing the land so it doesn't attract the wildlife," Pombo said. "They remove the possibility that they may have an endangered species on their property. That way they don't have a problem."

What is the problem? Thereafter, and for an indefinite period, the government gets to decide what you can and (mostly) cannot do with your land. If an endangered critter arrives on your land, in other words, it is a danger to you. "Shoot, shovel, and shutup" is the prudent response. Liberals don't understand this because they cannot conceive that their good intentions have bad consequences.

Can't these incentives be reversed? The government shows up with a check instead of a gun, say? "Changing the incentives is going to cost money," Pombo said. "If we are going to have grants or tax incentives, we will have to balance that off against Fish and Wildlife's budget." (This is the responsible agency within the Interior Department.)

One reason why the act has survived is that big developers and companies have been able to "buy their way out of an endangered species problem" with conservation plans, Pombo said. This has weakened business pressure on Congress to reform the law, placing the burden on the non-wealthy. It's the equivalent of targeted tax breaks that reduce the pressure to lower rates across the board.

As to cost, Pombo said, the greens like to say "the cost of the Endangered Species Act is what Fish and Wildlife spends." Of course this overlooks the "opportunity cost"-the loss of production caused by the act (not to mention the creatures shot and shoveled).

The press is partisan, without apology. "If an environmental group says something, the mainstream media will take it at face value and you have to try to disprove it," Pombo said. "They never go back and ask the source if the claim can be substantiated. …

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