Foe of Endangered Species Act on Defensive Over Abramoff

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Lawmaker questioned about Abramoff Ties.

Source of this article – Los Angeles Times, February 14, 2006.

By Bettina Boxall, Times Staff Writer

TRACY — Growing up on the family ranch here, Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy) says, he learned that “you have to work till you’re done. There’s nobody else to pick up the slack.”

IMPROPRIETIES DENIED: Richard Pombo says he has no fear of being tainted by the Abramoff scandal. “Do people who agree with me on legislation donate to my campaign? Absolutely. But my opinions haven’t changed,” he says (Adele Starr / AP)

It’s a lesson he carried from the fields of the northern San Joaquin Valley to the committee rooms of Congress, where for more than a decade he has doggedly labored to undo one of America’s signature environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act.

After finally getting a bill through the House last fall that would eliminate habitat protections on more than 150 million acres, Pombo has never been closer to reaching his goal. But as the Senate prepares to take up his measure this year, Pombo finds himself on the defensive, with his ideology increasingly viewed as extreme and his connections to industry and to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff under scrutiny.

A seven-term Republican and chairman of the influential House Resources Committee, Pombo is a tax-cutting, anti-abortion, anti-gun-control conservative. But it is the 33-year-old species law that has been his political obsession. He has argued that it puts “endangered flies, beetles, rats and shellfish” before people. He has exaggerated the law’s impact on his own land.

Besides curbing protections, his bill would require the federal government to pay owners for any restrictions on the use of their property.

“It took me 13 years to get to that point,” Pombo said recently, sitting in the backroom of a Tracy restaurant, where burlap seed bags decorated the clapboard walls and old farmers swapped jokes over afternoon coffee.

Now though, instead of focusing on carrying his win to the Senate, he finds himself facing questions about his efforts on behalf of Abramoff clients. And a series of legislative maneuvers late last year called attention to what critics say is his record of pushing proposals that benefit his primary campaign contributors: agribusiness, the oil and gas industry, builders, utilities and mining.

In November, Pombo tacked onto a budget bill provisions to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and expand oil and gas drilling off the nation’s coastlines, including California’s. Another rider would have reversed a long-standing moratorium on selling federal mineral lands to mining companies and opened up public lands to private development. And budget language drafted by Pombo’s staff — but never introduced — would have sold 15 national parks to raise federal revenue.

Moderate Republicans blocked the drilling provisions while conservative Western GOP senators rallied by sportsmen’s groups killed the land sell-off. A key GOP senator has also raised doubts about elements of the species act revision.

In environmental circles, Pombo’s efforts cemented his reputation as the most dangerous man in Congress. And they provided fodder for a lengthening list of political opponents who challenge his carefully cultivated image as the straight-shooting protector of the rural little guy.

“It was an outrageous set of proposals, and he’s not done,” complained Roger Schlickeisen, president of the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, which has launched a “Pombo in their pocket” campaign to underscore Pombo’s corporate ties. “There’s nobody else that competes with him” in compiling an anti-conservation record in Congress, Schlickeisen said.

But free market and property rights advocates cheered Pombo’s moves. “He’s a breath of fresh air,” said Terry Anderson, executive director of the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. “His efforts to try to privatize some of the federal lands was a major shift” from previous policy.

The 45-year-old rancher, who wears cowboy boots and hats around the button-down capital and hangs photos of cattle wrangling in his congressional office, says his first recollection of the Endangered Species Act stems from a fight over a new town proposed near Tracy years ago. Wildlife concerns helped kill the development. “I think that was probably the first time I realized what they can use the Endangered Species Act for,” said Pombo. “To me it just didn’t seem right.”

He says he has been misrepresented.

“A lot of people want to paint me a certain way and try to make it out so I fit this caricature that has been created as an anti-environmentalist and all of the negative things. Quite frankly it’s not true,” said Pombo.

He argues that the best way to conserve natural resources is to give society an economic incentive to protect them by allowing their use rather than barring it.

He insists he is improving the species act by making allies of the owners of private property, where most endangered species are found. He pointed out that House Democrats supported a competing Endangered Species Act rewrite that also eliminated habitat protections.

With his property rights mantra and cowboy garb, Pombo, nicknamed “Marlboro Man” by President Bush, evokes a wild rural West that doesn’t reflect his increasingly suburbanized district, which includes the burgeoning bedroom communities east of the San Francisco Bay and the western flank of Central Valley farm country.

Fifteen years ago Tracy was a typical blue-collar valley farm community, friendly but short on pastoral charm, with a Heinz ketchup factory and a sugar beet plant. Both are closed now. Since 1990, the population has more than doubled to nearly 80,000. The slightly sweet smell of manure still wafts through town, but Tracy is morphing into a generic ex-urb, ringed by chain-store shopping centers and jumbo-sized tract houses selling for a median $500,000, half what they would cost nearer the bay.

The Pombo family, a large, close-knit Portuguese Catholic clan that settled in the area a century ago, is aiding the transformation. During Pombo’s two years as a local councilman before heading to Congress in 1992, he worked on a general plan that set the stage for Tracy’s explosive growth. Today much of the farmland for sale on the town fringes is staked with the red and white signs of Pombo Real Estate, founded in the 1960s by his late uncle Ernie and carried on by relatives.

Pombo’s property rights zeal resonates with the old farm guard, which feels beset by environmental regulation. Government is “trying to tell you, ‘You can’t do this and that with your land,’ ” said Tracy High School agriculture instructor Dale Backman, who taught Pombo and now advises his son Richie in the school’s Future Farmers of America program. “Yeah, we need environmental protection. But we’ve gone too far.”

As Pombo’s profile rises, so does his political opposition. In the election this year, Democrats are targeting his seat. He will also face a challenge from his own party. Former California Congressman Pete McCloskey, a maverick Republican and co-author of the Endangered Species Act, says he’s so offended by Pombo’s record that he is moving into the district to run in the primary.

Still, election watchers say Pombo will not be easily dislodged from his largely Republican district. “You’re not going to beat Richard Pombo on the Endangered Species Act,” said GOP political analyst Allan Hoffenblum. “But corruption is an issue that’s on everybody’s mind. If he’s vulnerable on any issue, that would be it.”

Pombo’s critics have focused on his campaign’s reliance on donors from industries that stand to benefit from his legislation. Just months before the mining proposal made it out of Pombo’s committee, a former committee aide who once worked for Abramoff’s firm and is now a lobbyist for mining interests hosted a $1,000-a-head fundraiser for Pombo.

The Times reported earlier this year that Pombo joined forces with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas in efforts to squelch a federal banking investigation of Texas financier Charles Hurwitz. Pombo, who had previously received a campaign contribution from Hurwitz, has contended that the investigation was unfounded and abusive.

A Massachusetts tribe and client of Abramoff’s that donated $20,000 to Pombo received the congressman’s help seeking federal tribal recognition. Pombo supported the resumption of commercial whaling while accepting thousands of dollars in international travel from a private foundation funded by the seafood industry and a whaling association.

According to data compiled by the Campaign Finance Analysis Project, Pombo has, during his congressional career, collected more than $800,000 from agriculture, timber and fishing interests. The building industry has given him $205,000; oil and gas, $169,000; mining, $55,000; and casinos and gambling, $147,000.

Pombo denies any improprieties and says he has no fear of being tainted by the Abramoff scandal. “I met the guy a few times. He never lobbied me on anything. Never set foot in my office.

“I am fighting for the things that I believe in,” he added. “The positions I’ve held on issues haven’t changed since I first ran. Do people who agree with me on legislation donate to my campaign? Absolutely. But my opinions haven’t changed.”

The second of five boys raised on a farm and ranch operation just outside town, Pombo says his mother, Onita, shaped his political views more than his easygoing father, Ralph. She’s a Republican and his father was a Democrat — although he changed his party registration to vote for his son in the GOP primary.

Pombo and several of his brothers live in houses they’ve built on a 500-acre cattle ranch that spreads into the hills a few miles beyond Tracy’s creeping subdivisions. Nearly every weekend he returns from Washington to meet with constituents and be with his wife, Annette, and three children: his 17-year-old son and two girls, 12 and 9.

The family lands figure prominently in Pombo lore. It was the government riding roughshod over the family’s property rights, he says, that spurred him to get involved in national politics.

In 1994 he told a Senate subcommittee that he ran for Congress after the ranch was declared critical habitat for the endangered San Joaquin kit fox, stripping his land of its value and forcing his family to run the ranch “with an unwanted, unneeded, un-silent partner — the federal government.”

The tale turns out to have been embroidered. Pombo’s ranch is a corridor for the kit fox, the smallest fox in North America. But it is not critical habitat, which the government has never designated anywhere for the tiny fox. Pombo paid $5,137 into a regional habitat conservation plan to compensate for houses he and relatives were building on the ranch. But that was years after his congressional testimony.

Today, Pombo concedes his characterization was “mistaken” and says having kit fox habitat on his land “didn’t prevent me from doing anything.”

More recently, in the introduction to a report about “government abuse” issued by a conservative think tank, Pombo blamed the deaths of four firefighters in a 2001 Pacific Northwest forest fire on endangered salmon protections that fatally delayed aerial scoops of river water.

“Highly inaccurate…. The whole thing was a bunch of baloney,” Jim Furnish, a former deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service who headed an investigation of the deaths, said in an interview. The probe found that although there was some confusion about whether a helicopter could draw from the river, endangered species regulations did not forbid it and most of the delay in using the chopper was unrelated. Moreover, investigators concluded the four died because of command misjudgments and because the fire crew disregarded standard safety procedures.

Brian Kennedy, Pombo’s communications director, dismissed the Forest Service investigation as a whitewash.

Part of the conservative tide that swept over the House of Representatives in the early 1990s, Pombo has sat on the resources committee since first elected. He vaulted to the chair over half a dozen more senior Republicans in 2003 with the help of DeLay, an equally voluble critic of environmental regulation.

After he became chairman, Pombo tempered his anti-environmental rhetoric. He worked with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California to pass a forest-thinning bill and get funding for a major water program in California.

But, at least in critics’ eyes, Pombo dropped all semblance of moderation last fall. Next on Pombo’s list is a major reworking of another landmark law, the National Environmental Policy Act.

A thorn in the side of business and a boon to environmental activists, the act requires the federal government to review the probable environmental effects of everything from logging projects on public land to highway construction. In December, a resources staff report recommended limiting reviews and making it harder to bring lawsuits under the act.

Meanwhile, Pombo’s supporters are applauding his perseverance on endangered species legislation.

“This is so much better than anybody thought was possible,” Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute said. “We may end up with something less good than that. But it will be a lot better than if he had compromised to begin with.”

Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.