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September 30, 2005
Private Property Rights Making Comeback From Extinction?

Over the past thirty years, private property rights have steadily retreated in the face of an unprecedented hunt by environmentalists and grasping government agencies. Starting with the Nixon-era Endangered Species Act and reaching its nadir in the recent Kelo Supreme Court decision, owners of property have found their rights to hold and develop their property as they see fit increasingly restricted. Now, however, with the public outrage over Kelo still reverberating through political circles, Congress may finally push back on behalf of private property rights. On a mostly party-line vote, the House approved important restrictions on the application of the Endangered Species Act that requires the government to reimburse owners for the loss of any commercial value to their property under ESA enforcement, and not just only if all commercial value is lost:

The House passed legislation yesterday that could greatly expand private-property rights under the Endangered Species Act, the 1973 law that is credited with helping keep the bald eagle from extinction but that has also provoked bitter opposition.

By a vote of 229 to 193, lawmakers approved a revision of the act, perhaps the nation's most powerful environmental law. The law has led to battles over species such as the Northern spotted owl, the snail darter and the red-legged frog. ...

The bill would require the government to compensate property owners if measures to protect species thwart development plans. It would also give political appointees the power to make some scientific determinations and stop "critical habitat" designations, which limit development.

The changes were pushed through by House Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo (R). The California rancher contends that the current rules unduly burden landowners and lead to costly lawsuits while doing too little to save plants and animals.

Many Democrats and moderate Republicans said Pombo's bill would eliminate important protections for species and lead to large government handouts to property owners. A White House statement yesterday supported the bill. But it noted that payments to property owners could have a "significant" impact on the budget.

The bill will only lead to "large government handouts" if the ESA continues to get abused to pursue no-growth strategies instead of its intended purpose of actually balancing the needs of nature and man. Far too often, environmentalists have used the Act as a back door to stop activities of which they disapprove politically, regardless of the consequences or the animals involved. A farmer in Central California had to stop farming on his very expensive land in the 80s because enviromentalists found an endangered rat on his land, the kangaroo rat, and farming could have killed it off.

One of the frequent casualties of such application of this and other efforts by environmentalists are oil refineries. America has not built an oil refinery in thirty years, mostly due to the opposition by environmental groups to the use of fossil fuels. However, instead of dealing with refineries in that manner, they hijack environmental laws to make the process of building a refinery so long and so expensive that the oil companies simply give up. The effect of such abuse only becomes apparent when we face crises like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, where our existing capacity takes a temporary hit and has to shut down down -- and we have no backup facilities to meet our demand.

The cost of this abuse gets entirely borne by the property owner. The new bill transfers that cost to all taxpayers, appropriately so since the federal government confiscates a profitable use of the properties in question, right now without any compensation. It will show people exactly how much this radical environmentalism actually costs our economy, bringing the damage into the light. Perhaps it will make people a lot less enthusiastic about ESA and the abuses it allows if they find out that they will have to foot the bill to keep rats alive in Central California.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at September 30, 2005 5:45 AM

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