BELEN, N.M. – In a field hearing here to discuss the effects of a recent 10th Circuit Court decision decreeing that under the Endangered Species Act the Rio Grande endangered silvery minnow has a higher priority for water than any other user – including farmers, ranchers and municipalities – members of the U.S. House Committee on Resources pulled no punches in declaring the law was harming the American way of life in the West and had to be “fixed.”

The Sept. 6 hearing was conducted so committee members could hear firsthand what the ruling would mean to the economy of Albuquerque, downstream communities, recreation and agriculture. But as the hearing unfolded, to an audience of about 250 attendees from several states, it became apparent by statements from the members of Congress that, in a larger sense, the committee was examining the potential impact of the Endangered Species Act on communities and states across America.

Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., set the theme for the hearing when he said for the record, “The Endangered Species Act has become a tool used by vocal and well-funded special interest groups, and needs to be fixed.”

Pombo’s fellow California congressman and Resources Subcommittee chairman, Ken Calvert, R-Calif., concurred: “The silvery minnow ruling sent a shockwave of uncertainty through Western states. The ruling essentially ignores the nation’s fundamental notion of private-property freedoms by exerting federal control over locally controlled water resources. The ruling primarily means that the Endangered Species Act, for the first time, takes precedence over urban water supplies. When court decisions put our communities second, we need to take a hard look at the purpose and balance of the Endangered Species Act.”

Continued Calvert, “More money is being spent on litigation than saving species. No one ever intended this law to become the full employment act for lawyers and environmentalist extremists, but I’m concerned it’s going in that direction. It is time for a fresh look at the ESA.”

Committee member Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., noted, “I witnessed the 10th Circuit release 50 years’ worth of water in one year. That’s like saving up your whole life for nothing.”

In a written statement, Pearce said, “The minnow is not more important than our families, our land, our communities or our way of life. The ESA has … gone though a series of bureaucratic and legal changes that have caused it to become an enormous problem for our communities, counties, local leaders, families and agriculture producers. We cannot let the ESA control the rights of our state or those of our farmers and ranchers.”

Pearce’s comments were seconded by New Mexico Rep. Heather Wilson, who noted, “The court’s (silvery minnow) decision has enormous consequences for all Western states, where water is such a valuable resource and critical part of the economy.” This decision sets a precedent we can’t allow to stand. If (the federal government) can take water from the Rio Grande, they can take water from anybody.”

The views of the Committee on Resources members were echoed by placard-carrying demonstrators in the parking lot of Belen High School, location of the hearing.

Young protesters at congressional field hearing.

Ronnie Merritt, New Mexico rancher and chairman of the Environmental Conservation Organization, stated, “The Endangered Species Act has been successful! Successful in destroying ranching! Successful in destroying farming! Successful in destroying logging and mining, and now … now it is successful in destroying the economy of Albuquerque!”

Said Jessica Sanchez, a Belen farmer, at the hearing, “My grandfather lost more than 30 percent of his crops this year because of the minnow.”

Eileen Grevey Hillson, a water adviser to business groups, said the doubt created by the court ruling is also bad for the Albuquerque and New Mexico economy.

“Businesses will not locate here because of the uncertainly of a water supply,” she testified to the committee.

All but one witness – Letty Beli, an environmental attorney – agreed the silvery minnow ruling is a calamity for New Mexico and must be reversed or blocked by Congress.

The U.S. House Committee on Resources carries considerable weight and regulatory authority. Among the federal agencies under the Committee’s jurisdiction are the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that listed the silvery minnow as an endangered species. Further, the Endangered Species Act is a statute under the jurisdiction of the committee.

Just one Democrat on the committee, Rep. Joe Baca of California, attended the field hearing.

J. Zane Walley is executive director of the Environmental Conservation Organization.

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