WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court gave environmentalists a major victory yesterday by allowing the government to ban private actions that seriously disturb the habitat of birds and animals on the government's endangered species list.
However, the victory might not be a lasting one; the federal law to protect threatened wildlife is under sharp challenge in Congress.
Ruling in a case stirred up by federal efforts to protect the northern spotted owl, the court decided by a 6-3 vote that the Interior Department had been given authority by Congress to adopt the habitat-guarding rule 20 years ago.
That rule has been the target of a property rights movement seeking to curtail government efforts to control how private landowners use their property.
The debate over the fate of the northern spotted owl has come to embody the political and economic controversy over the nation's environmental protection laws.
Since the decision yesterday was based on the court's interpretation of the Endangered Species Act, it is vulnerable to efforts in Congress either to scale back the act or to repeal it.
While yesterday's ruling won the praise of environmental groups like the Sierra Club, it was denounced by groups now working against the Endangered Species Act, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The Sierra Club said that the Supreme Court had "rightly recognized that to save endangered species, we must protect the habitat upon which they depend." The court ruling should send a message to Congress not to "gut" the law, the group added.
The Chamber of Commerce, by contrast, said the ruling "only reinforced the crucial need for corrective legislation." The ruling "draws a line in the sand between overzealous government regulators and private citizens who have had their livelihoods threatened or destroyed by out-of-control federal regulations."
If the law is modified by Congress, President Clinton could veto such a measure. The government defended the habitat rule before the court.
The rule has been an object of debate in areas that are likely to be major political battlegrounds in next year's presidential election -- states in the Far West and the Southeast.
Issued in 1975, the rule provided the Interior Department's definition of a key section of the endangered species law, so the rule could be nullified if Congress removed the legislative basis for it. The law makes it a crime to "harm" an endangered species. The rule defines "harm" to include "significant habitat" alteration or loss that kills or injuries wildlife on the endangered list.
The new decision could have the most visible effect on millions of acres of timberland in the Pacific Northwest that are the home of the northern spotted owl and the red cockaded woodpecker -- also a protected species.
But beyond that locale, the federal rule affects hundreds of millions of acres of privately owned lands that have been drawn into endangered species disputes in recent years.
The Interior Department has used the rule in only a few cases of punishment of those who harm the habitat of endangered species. Most of the time, the department has relied on the rule to induce communities, developers and industry to negotiate voluntary plans to protect sites where endangered wildlife feeds, breeds or takes shelter.
The Supreme Court ruling grew out of a challenge by small landowners, logging companies and families who depend on the forest industry in the Northwest and Southeast. While those challengers had no intent to harm the spotted owl or the woodpecker, their logging activities could harm the habitat of those creatures and thus violate the rule.
The court stressed that the ban on habitat destruction or change applies only when that modification would "kill or injure" protected species.
It rejected the challengers' argument that the rule should be enforced only against those who use force directly against a species. The law, the court said, applies to "indirect as well as deliberate" actions that seriously harm wildlife habitat.
Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the three dissenters, said the court's interpretation of the rule "imposes unfairness to the point of financial ruin -- not just upon the rich, but upon the simplest farmer who finds his land conscripted to national zoological use."