Few pieces of environmental legislation have been as far-reaching and controversial, or as reviled, over the past 30-some-odd years as the Endangered Species Act, which gave the federal government authority to identify threatened species and impose regulations and policies to protect them and help them return to healthy populations.

However well-intentioned the original measure in 1969, the 1973 revision signed into law by President Nixon has been a millstone around the neck of many farmers, ranchers, and other land owners who effectively lost use of their property without compensation in order to protect species habitat.

Many horror stories ensued — example, an endangered fly, only eight of which were found in Riverside County, Calif., that held up the construction of a hospital at an estimated cost of $400,000 per fly.

Critics, who are legion, term the ESA a colossal failure. Wildlife experts say that since the act was adopted, more than 1,300 species have been listed as endangered or threatened, and only seven of those have been removed from the list because of recovery.

Another 20 or so were taken off because they became extinct or it was determined that they had been improperly listed due to data errors.

“The facts indicate the ESA has done little, if anything, to help most of these species,” said Brian Seasholes of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The act, he said, “is used primarily as a means of free land use control by federal agencies.” CEI's Jonathan Adler said, “ESA tramples on private property rights more than any other statute.”

Determining the true costs of ESA implementation is akin to counting grains of sand on the beach. From 1989 to 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that a bit over $3.5 billion was spent on ESA activities. But outside analysts say that figure is grossly inadequate and that when costs imposed on private citizens are factored in, the total is more like 10 times that much.

Past efforts in Congress to make the ESA more palatable have been shot down. The latest attempt to mitigate its provisions, a bill by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., was approved by the House 229-193. Pombo, chairman of the Resources Committee, said the act “has been a failure at recovering species — we have to put the focus on recovery and protection of private property owners‥

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., said the paltry number of species delisted since 1973 shows just how ineffective the law has been, and that the House measure shows “real promise.” She added, “It can't possibly be worse than the law now on the books.”

Environmental groups have condemned the legislation, terming it “a death warrant for treasured American wildlife” and “a giveaway program for greedy developers.”

It is expected the House version will face tough sledding in the Senate, with opposition from Democrats and several moderate Republicans, not to mention making its potentially twice-as-costly provisions fit into an already strained federal budget.

But at least it represents the foundation of a dialogue on making the law more focused and relieving some of its more onerous provisions.