Babbitt would modify Endangered Species Act


WASHINGTON -- With the Republican-controlled Congress preparing to rewrite the Endangered Species Act, the Clinton administration proposed changes yesterday intended to increase the law's flexibility and decrease its economic costs without putting rare plants and animals in greater danger of extinction.

Among other things, the administration said it wanted to exempt from regulation activities on most small plots, like house lots, allowing owners to disturb the habitats of endangered and threatened species as long as the overall effect on the species was negligible.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt also called for giving more power to state governments in carrying out the law's protections, and said future decisions to list species for protection would have to be supported by independent scientific peer reviews.

His proposal boils down to this: If better science is used to understand the condition and needs of a species, more flexible ways can be found for protecting it while minimizing the disruption of human activities.

Described as a set of "guideposts" for Congress, it was the most detailed presentation yet of Mr. Babbitt's proposals for defending a law that sometimes seems to be as vulnerable as the rarest butterfly.

In the last two weeks, the House of Representatives has voted overwhelmingly to suspend all new listings of endangered species temporarily and to require that landowners be paid for any decline in property values that results from restrictions under the Endangered Species Act. The law is overdue for its periodic revision, and there are separate legislative moves afoot to cut the spending of the agencies that enforce it.

To stave off the assault, Mr. Babbitt has been changing many of the regulations that enforce the law, trying to shore up political support by protecting private property owners from the law's more onerous restrictions.

"I've never taken the position that the terms of this act are graven in bronze, never to be changed," he said. "But this act, in its basic premises, in its basic framework, is a good law."

Mr. Babbitt said that the provision adopted by the House to compensate landowners "would simply gut the Endangered Species Act."

His proposal calls for the law to be "carried out in a manner that avoids unnecessary social and economic impacts upon private property and the regulated public, and minimizes those impacts that cannot be avoided."

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