Supreme Court Ruling Supports Endangered Species

Article excerpt

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the federal government may restrict logging and other practices on private property, if they harm the habitat of endangered or threatened species.

The ruling is a blow to the timber industry and property rights advocates, who argued that such restrictions could be made only on federal lands. And it is a victory for environmentalists, who said the powers of the Endangered Species Act must extend to all places where the species live.

The 6-3 decision announced in Washington overturned a federal appeals court ruling last year in a case from Oregon over protection of the northern spotted owl. That court said the Endangered Species Act of 1973 bars only direct threats such as hunting, trapping or otherwise directly killing the species.

But the Supreme Court said landowners violate the act if they change endangered species' habitats, even unintentionally, through other practices.

In the spotted owl case, the timber industry had urged the Supreme Court to rule that the government must buy private land critical to survival of troubled fish or wildlife. Justice Department lawyers replied that such purchases could bankrupt the government, and that some species would become extinct without federal restrictions on private landowners.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, acknowledged conflicts between protecting species and economic endeavors, but said, "These questions must be addressed in the usual course of the law, through case by case resolution and adjudication." Stevens was joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia said it is "unmistakably clear" that the law forbids hunting and killing of endangered animals. But, he added, extending protection to habitat "imposed unfairness to the point of financial ruin" to landowners. Also dissenting were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas.

Stakes `Very Huge'

"The stakes in this case were very, very huge," said Richard Lazarus, a law professor at Washington University. "It's one of the most critical parts of one of the most important environmental acts. …