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How Wilson Got Snookered by Babbitt in the Gnatcatcher Deal : Conservation: The governor has authored a plan that exceeds by 400% the land-sequestration effects of an "endangered" listing.

July 11, 1993|Hugh Hewitt | Hugh Hewitt, co-host of KCET's "Life and Times," is a natural-resources lawyer

The California gnatcatcher is a "threatened species" by virtue of the Endangered Species Act. The 2,500 pairs of the bird in Los Angel es, San Bernardino, Riverside, Or ange and San Diego counties mean economic disaster for the landowners whose properties they inhabit. It's a crime, you see, to disturb the gnatcatcher wherever it lives, and the permission needed to disrupt even one bird will be extraordinarily difficult to obtain. In short, those who own the land under the gnatcatchers' nests have lost control of their property. The federal government is now the de facto landlord.

Who will be held politically accountable for the economic aftermath of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's decision to protect the gnatcatcher? The answer: Gov. Pete Wilson.

Here's how it happened.

In late 1990, the Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned both the California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Department of the Interior to declare the gnatcatcher endangered. The state rejected the petition, citing, among other things, a new program launched by the Wilson Administration--the Natural Communities Conservation Planning program. The program was to be voluntary. Landowners, environmentalists, state and local officials would work together to design reserve/preserve systems that put aside large blocks of coastal sage scrub habitat on which the gnatcatcher lives.

The program's critical feature was a commitment to economically develop some of the gnatcatcher's habitat while the preservation planning proceeded. Almost every participant wanted to avoid the economic debacle that followed the 1988 federal listing of the Stephens' kangaroo rat in Riverside County. Nearly five years later, more than 150 miles of land remains sequestered from all use and the economic losses in the Inland Empire have been huge.

The federal government rejected Wilson's voluntary approach when it listed the gnatcatcher. But in announcing his decision, Babbitt promised a new approach: The bird would be listed as "threatened"--not "endangered"--and the Natural Communities Conservation Planning program would be encouraged to continue.

Babbitt accomplished a rare twofer: He satisfied the Clinton Administration's core environmental constituency--and transferred to Wilson the responsibility to fix the problem the feds created. What looked like a gift--spoken support for the governor's voluntary conservation program--was, in fact, a powerful shot to Wilson's political solar plexus.

The trap was in the fine print, fine print that Wilson has yet to realize is a suicide note. Interior endorsed it in concept, but the Natural Communities Conservation Planning program must receive a federal blessing at every turn. In the three months since the Babbitt announcement, the conservation program has, predictably, spun badly out of control.

On June 17, the California Department of Fish and Game released the draft of the guidelines that will govern Wilson's program. For the next six years, 95% of the coastal sage scrub--all 500 square miles of it--is off limits to any use, even farming. And the 5% of land theoretically available for development, well, nobody knows where that 5% is, or when it will be identified. Put another way, the Wilson Administration has authored a plan that exceeds by 400% the land-sequestration effects of a straight "endangered" listing of the bird.

During the listing battle, the Construction Industry Federation estimated that protecting the gnatcatcher would cost 200,000 jobs during the first 18 months of the listing. Critics said the estimate was inflated. But now that the gnatcatcher-inspired conservation program has swallowed and sequestered all remaining coastal sage scrub in Southern California, the numbers look conservative.

Some project proponents have already felt the pinch of the gnatcatcher listing. Lawyers, biologists and planning consultants have been besieged by landowners who need gnatcatcher surveys and advice yesterday. The consulting fees and legal bills are piling up; the carrying cost of project delays will stagger most owners.

The certain next step--taken from the kangaroo rat playbook--will be a wave of construction-related fees necessary to pay the legion of eco-apparatchiks. The environmental media, eager to chart every twist and turn in the listing battle, have dropped the story now that the complexities of a listing's aftermath have rendered the facile lead paragraph impossible.

So Wilson enters a reelection battle with a weak economy and a new bureaucratic nightmare. At a time when the state must jump-start the home-building industry, the Natural Communities Conservation Planning program is quietly suffocating that sector's fragile recovery.

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