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The golden-cheeked warbler spends most of the year in South America, but in spring the migratory songbird heads for the canyonlands west of Austin, Texas, to breed in the juniper trees.

Unfortunately for developers in the area, the warbler has a perch on the government's list of threatened and endangered species.But folks in Austin wanted to avoid the kind of confrontation that the federal Endangered Species Act has provoked elsewhere in the country. And on Thursday, local developers will join with the man who enforces the act, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, in celebrating a compromise plan that sets aside 60,000 acres of prime habitat for the warbler, while freeing more than 140,000 acres of potential habitat for development.

"We think it's a very positive step forward," says Amy McEl-hen-ney, executive director of the Real Estate Council of Austin. Babbitt will be the group's guest at a luncheon on May 2, when he is to give final approval to the proposal, called the Balcones Canyonlands Con-servation Plan.

Babbitt cites the plan as a prime example of ways to defuse battles over the Endangered Species Act. "People said, `Here's a conflict to end all conflicts,' " Babbitt says. "Texas senators were all going crazy, giving speeches, pouring gasoline on conflicts. Now, I'm going to be a guest at a banquet to celebrate the completion of a plan that the Texas senators used for two years as case No. 1 of why the act doesn't work."

Since taking office in 1993, Babbitt has made a mission out of simultaneously preserving and moderating the Endangered Species Act. The landmark 1973 law sharply limits public or private projects that might threaten the survival of rare animals, birds and plants.

"There are 1,000 species on that list that might be extinct today absent the Endangered Species Act," Babbitt says.

Critics question those claims, but say in any event that the law infringes on property rights, stymies development and costs jobs.

"Species protection can be achieved more efficiently and at less cost to landowners than the law currently provides," says W. Henson Moore, a former Republican congressman and co-chairman of the Endangered Species Coordinating Council, a timber industry-led coalition that supports sweeping changes in the law.

Opposition to the law has simmered since the late 1970s, when a newly discovered species of fish, the snail darter, temporarily blocked completion of the Tennessee Valley Authority's Tellico Dam. Opposition grew in the 1980s as the number of protected species grew and the law's strictures came to be felt by property owners ranging from farmers and ranchers to timber growers and developers.

Since the Republican takeover of Congress after the 1994 elections, the act itself has seemed endangered. Congress voted in March 1995 to impose a moratorium on listing any new species. And in October, the House Resources Committee approved a broad rewrite of the act lifting its mandatory provisions for private landowners and creating new hurdles for the government in listing species or implementing protection and recovery plans.

Despite those controversies, Babbitt and other supporters of the law say the American public still supports the goal of protecting endangered species. "There is overwhelming public support for the Endangered Species Act, has been for the last 20 years, and continues, undiluted," Babbitt says.

Critics, however, say the law sets an impossible goal of stopping the inevitable process of extinction and then imposes huge costs in the process.

"Regardless of how much money there is for the Endangered Species Act, you still can't save everything," says R.J. Smith, senior environmental scholar with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market-oriented think tank. "There's not enough money."

Smith and other critics also insist that the law creates disincentives for landowners to protect plant and animal life by severely restricting the use of their land whenever endangered species are found. "Landowners are not afraid of wildlife on their land," Smith says. "Landowners are afraid of feds on their land."

The debate over the law comes as many biologists are warning that the Earth is experiencing an "extinction crisis," with plants and animals becoming extinct at an unprecedented rate. But scientists acknowledge the difficulty of selling the public on the importance of "biological diversity" when economic interests are at stake.

"You can make a first-class argument for why we ought to be concerned about preserving biodiversity," says Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis, a leading plant conservation facility. "But when you get it down to the particulars and someone's own ox is being gored, then you have more trouble with it."

The policy modifications adopted by the Clinton administration in the past three years have been aimed at easing some of the criticisms of the law. In particular, Babbitt has moved to make greater use of so-called habitat conservation plans.

These agreements, like the one set for adoption in Austin and another giant plan being negotiated in Southern California, allow landowners to use land designated as critical habitat for endangered or threatened species if they take other steps to mitigate the impact of their activities, such

as setting aside other land for habitat.

Critics of the law grudgingly acknowledge Babbitt's changes, but they say more changes are needed. "Everyone agrees that there has to be reform," says John Doggett, director of government relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation. "Everyone agrees that there have to be more incentives. Everyone agrees there have to be new ways of protecting species."

But the effort to rewrite the law has stalled. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., fearing a politically damaging debate, has refused to schedule the committee-approved bill for a floor vote. Meanwhile, moderate House Republicans have drafted an alternative measure that makes less drastic revisions in the act.

Babbitt himself says Congress does not have to reauthorize the law even though it lapsed three years ago and has been kept alive by year-to-year funding measures. "I think codifying the changes into the law is a good idea," Babbitt says, referring to his administrative changes, "but not at the expense of doing bad things."