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Habitat preservation prevails

Animals in danger of extinction got a helping hand from the Supreme Court last week. The court ruled that the government can restrict the use of private property to prevent the destruction of habitats of endangered and threatened species. The 6-3 ruling, a victory for environmental advocates, affirms that habitat preservation is a crucial part of the protection of America's dwindling wildlife.

The court's decision hinged on the definition of "harm" in the language of the Endangered Species Act. According to Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote for the majority, the act's call for comprehensive protection of threatened and endangered species does include habitat preservation: Landowners who knowingly or unknowingly destroy the species' surroundings violate the act.

At issue was a complaint by landowners, logging companies and families dependent on the forest-related industries in the Pacific Northwest and Southeast. They claimed that preserving the habitats of the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered species, and the northern spotted owl, a threatened species, had injured them economically.

Stevens said the court's majority assumed the landowners and loggers "have no desire to harm" either species. But logging activities violate the act if they "have the effect, even though unintended, of detrimentally changing the natural habitat of both listed species and that, as a consequence, members of those species will be killed or injured," he wrote.

Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice William Rehnquist, dissented. They claimed that the regulation of private lands "imposes unfairness to the point of financial ruin."

But the Interior Department, which enforces the act, already is changing its enforcement of the law to make it less onerous to private landowners, in part by encouraging them to negotiate habitat conservation plans on their property, says Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

Rather than compromise, the timber industry has vowed to continue its fight in state legislatures, and it will likely use Scalia's short-sighted dissent as fuel for its argument.

Babbitt hailed the ruling as a "common-sense" interpretation of the Endangered Species Act. But the environmental victory may be short-lived. Some members of Congress already are trying to rewrite the law to override the court's ruling.

Sadly, greedy property rights advocates and private industries, not dying species of animals, are the ones many of today's lawmakers are intent on protecting.