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Landowners who reach agreements with the government on protecting endangered species on their property will no longer have to worry about the government reneging on the agreements, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said Thursday.

Joined at a press conference by representatives of the timber industry and other large property-owners, Babbitt promised that, from now on, "a deal's a deal."When a federal regulatory agency - the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service - negotiates a habitat conservation plan with a private landowner, "that plan, for the life of the plan, will be the deal, and the regulatory agency will not be back making any additional demands for land or money," he said.

With Congress expected to turn to reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act next year, property-rights advocates have been preparing for war.

"Property-owners feel besieged by environmental laws and regulations that have lost all touch with reason and reality," charged Rep. Billy Tauzin, D-La., who has introduced a bill to weaken the Endangered Species Act as it affects property rights.

Babbitt said he thought the new policy should appease property-rights advocates because it shows the potential for flexibility in the act as presently written.

Under the act, when a large private landowner wants to develop land where an endangered species lives, he must produce a voluminous and expensive habitat conservation plan explaining how he intends to protect the species. The government must sign off on the plan before any development can start.

Babbitt explained, "What developers have been saying with a considerable degree of legitimate concern is, `Look, it's one thing to make all of these concessions, as we understand is mandated by law, but it's something else to face the prospect of the federal government or the state of California coming back' " years later and saying the plan isn't working and needs to be revised.