It's a lesson he carried from the fields of the northern San Joaquin Valley to the committee rooms of Congress, where for more than a decade he has doggedly labored to undo one of America's signature environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act.
Jack Abramoff under scrutiny.
A seven-term Republican and chairman of the influential House Resources Committee, Pombo is a tax-cutting, anti-abortion, anti-gun-control conservative. But it is the 33-year-old species law that has been his political obsession. He has argued that it puts "endangered flies, beetles, rats and shellfish" before people. He has exaggerated the law's impact on his own land.
Besides curbing protections, his bill would require the federal government to pay owners for any restrictions on the use of their property.
"It took me 13 years to get to that point," Pombo said recently, sitting in the backroom of a Tracy restaurant, where burlap seed bags decorated the clapboard walls and old farmers swapped jokes over afternoon coffee.
Now though, instead of focusing on carrying his win to the Senate, he finds himself facing questions about his efforts on behalf of Abramoff clients. And a series of legislative maneuvers late last year called attention to what critics say is his record of pushing proposals that benefit his primary campaign contributors: agribusiness, the oil and gas industry, builders, utilities and mining.
In November, Pombo tacked onto a budget bill provisions to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and expand oil and gas drilling off the nation's coastlines, including California's. Another rider would have reversed a long-standing moratorium on selling federal mineral lands to mining companies and opened up public lands to private development. And budget language drafted by Pombo's staff — but never introduced — would have sold 15 national parks to raise federal revenue.
Moderate Republicans blocked the drilling provisions while conservative Western GOP senators rallied by sportsmen's groups killed the land sell-off. A key GOP senator has also raised doubts about elements of the species act revision.
In environmental circles, Pombo's efforts cemented his reputation as the most dangerous man in Congress. And they provided fodder for a lengthening list of political opponents who challenge his carefully cultivated image as the straight-shooting protector of the rural little guy.
"It was an outrageous set of proposals, and he's not done," complained Roger Schlickeisen, president of the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, which has launched a "Pombo in their pocket" campaign to underscore Pombo's corporate ties. "There's nobody else that competes with him" in compiling an anti-conservation record in Congress, Schlickeisen said.
But free market and property rights advocates cheered Pombo's moves. "He's a breath of fresh air," said Terry Anderson, executive director of the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. "His efforts to try to privatize some of the federal lands was a major shift" from previous policy.
The 45-year-old rancher, who wears cowboy boots and hats around the button-down capital and hangs photos of cattle wrangling in his congressional office, says his first recollection of the Endangered Species Act stems from a fight over a new town proposed near Tracy years ago. Wildlife concerns helped kill the development. "I think that was probably the first time I realized what they can use the Endangered Species Act for," said Pombo. "To me it just didn't seem right."
He says he has been misrepresented.
"A lot of people want to paint me a certain way and try to make it out so I fit this caricature that has been created as an anti-environmentalist and all of the negative things. Quite frankly it's not true," said Pombo.
He argues that the best way to conserve natural resources is to give society an economic incentive to protect them by allowing their use rather than barring it.
He insists he is improving the species act by making allies of the owners of private property, where most endangered species are found. He pointed out that House Democrats supported a competing Endangered Species Act rewrite that also eliminated habitat protections.
With his property rights mantra and cowboy garb, Pombo, nicknamed "Marlboro Man" by President Bush, evokes a wild rural West that doesn't reflect his increasingly suburbanized district, which includes the burgeoning bedroom communities east of the San Francisco Bay and the western flank of Central Valley farm country.
Fifteen years ago Tracy was a typical blue-collar valley farm community, friendly but short on pastoral charm, with a Heinz ketchup factory and a sugar beet plant. Both are closed now. Since 1990, the population has more than doubled to nearly 80,000. The slightly sweet smell of manure still wafts through town, but Tracy is morphing into a generic ex-urb, ringed by chain-store shopping centers and jumbo-sized tract houses selling for a median $500,000, half what they would cost nearer the bay.