Calling it a precautionary move, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday that it will launch a new review of how the San Joaquin Hills tollway will affect the threatened California gnatcatcher that lost much of its habitat to fire.
Wildlife officials said they want to determine if October's wildfire that destroyed a vast swath of coastal sage scrub harboring the gnatcatcher in Laguna Canyon might have created problems requiring attention before the $1.1-billion road project can go forward.
The study, which is expected to take five weeks, will not cause any immediate delays to the 15-mile tollway because construction of the section that runs through Laguna Canyon is on hold while a federal lawsuit is litigated. In the meantime, work is progressing on a segment of the toll road to the north and south of the 4.5-mile stretch that would bisect the canyon.
Officials at the Orange County Transportation Corridor Agencies, which is building the toll road, say the Oct. 27 fire scorched 90% of the route's right-of-way near Laguna Canyon, making it likely wildlife officials will find that gnatcatchers moved farther from the path, not closer.
"From what wildlife officials have said so far, we don't believe this will change the ultimate status" of the road, TCA spokesman Mike Stocksdill said.
But environmentalists battling the tollway welcomed the new study, saying they believe it will show that remaining pockets of coastal sage scrub populated by gnatcatchers would be jeopardized if the tollway were built.
"It would be akin to pouring out your canteen in the middle of the desert," said Michael Fitts, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The toll road will destroy unburned areas that are very scarce. The viability of the San Joaquin Hills gnatcatcher population, which we believe is essential to the survival of the species, depends on those birds that exist in the remnant habitat areas."
The Fish and Wildlife Service determined in June that the tollway would not drive the gnatcatcher to extinction. But officials at the Federal Highway Administration, which is overseeing construction of the much-debated tollway, asked wildlife officials to review the situation again in the aftermath of the fire.
Highway officials wanted the new review largely to allay any chance for further lawsuits by NRDC or other environmental groups, said Susan Saul, a spokeswoman in the wildlife agency's Pacific region office in Portland, Ore.
"They're trying to make sure all the bases are covered," Saul said. "They want to take care of any uncertainties before the road project moves much further."
In September, a federal judge banned the TCA from working on the central section of the tollway, which would link Interstate 5 in San Juan Capistrano with the Corona del Mar Freeway near John Wayne Airport.
Further hearings are set next month, and both sides raised the possibility that the study to be undertaken by the wildlife service might be used as ammunition in the federal lawsuit. After the wildfire, tollway agency lawyers filed briefs arguing that there was no longer any need for a court order barring construction because the fire had destroyed the habitat that hosts the gnatcatcher and dozens of other species.
Those opinions, which were rejected by the judge, run counter to the beliefs of environmentalists like Fitts, who said some gnatcatchers that escaped the flames are now huddled in small islands of unburned sage scrub along the corridor route.
The survival of the species, he said, will depend in part on the remaining birds being able to spread as the coastal sage begins to grow anew on hillsides charred by the fire. Fitts said the roadway would be a barrier dividing pockets of gnatcatchers from other areas of sage scrub.
In addition, Fitts argued that sections of coastal sage scrub that have burned along the road's right-of-way remain valuable. "They will regenerate relatively quickly," he said. "Right now they're like a tree that loses its leaves in the fall. They'll come back."
Authorities say about 7,000 acres of coastal sage scrub burned in the fire that swept through Laguna Canyon in late October. Biologists had mapped more than 129 pairs of gnatcatchers and 33 single birds in the area that burned. Although it remains unclear how many birds perished, authorities believe a sizable number survived because the gnatcatcher population has grown in sections of sage unscathed by the flames.
Wildlife officials remained uncertain what the study would find, but suggested it might not delay the road.
"It's a bit premature for me to speculate right now," said Peter Stine, acting field supervisor in the wildlife agency's Carlsbad field office. "But based on the evidence we have right now, it seems unlikely" construction of the tollway would be delayed.
Stine stressed that the study will look closely for any signs that the tollway could usher in the bird's extinction.
"While the most obvious concern would be the direct impact of the road, there's also concerns about indirect impacts," Stine said, such as the highway dividing up areas of coastal sage scrub needed for the bird to survive.