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Wilson Signs Endangered Species Act Changes Into Law

Environment: Farmers and builders will have greater latitude under the revised version. Critics say it weakens protections.


SACRAMENTO — Delighting those who believe protections for California's imperiled plants and animals have gone too far, Gov. Pete Wilson on Friday signed into law an ambitious rewrite of the state Endangered Species Act.

Appearing at a ceremony in Fresno, Wilson signed two bills that will substantially alter--critics say weaken--rules protecting fragile species from the activities of California farmers and developers.

The action marks the most dramatic change to the act since its passage in 1984. Wilson said the bills "restore some much-needed common sense to a law that at times has bordered on the nonsensical."

"Far too often our laws unfairly victimize those who not only respect the land, but live off it," Wilson said. "Just ask any grower who can't plow his field because it's inhabited by kangaroo rats or fairy shrimp."

The state act, along with a similar law at the federal level, has been the nemesis of farmers, builders and other landowners, who say it is unfairly restrictive and puts the well-being of critters over the rights of humans to make a living.

The changes Wilson authorized Friday will affect 224 species on the state's list of vulnerable plants and animals. Many of those species are also ranked as endangered by the federal government; they will still enjoy separate protections under the federal Endangered Species Act, which is the subject of a contentious reform debate in Congress.

One of the bills signed by Wilson will allow home builders, miners, utility companies and others to harm or kill an endangered species or its habitat if they agree to compensate fully for the loss.

Under the bill, SB 879 by Sen. Patrick Johnston (D-Stockton), a developer could scrape 20 acres of San Joaquin kit fox habitat to build a golf course if he agreed to set aside 20 acres of roughly similar ground elsewhere.

The second bill grants farmers immunity from prosecution if they accidentally kill an endangered species during "routine" agricultural practices. It also allows farmers to intentionally kill an endangered species while farming--but only if they agree to create habitat and use wildlife-friendly farming methods.

Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) called the bill covering farmers--SB 231 by Sen. Jim Costa (D-Fresno)--"a disaster."

"It's a license to exterminate species that are in the way of farming--as long as you say it's an accident," said Hayden, one of the bill's few opponents in the Legislature. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Law Foundation and several other groups also fought the bill.

Costa, who has dueled with Hayden over the issue for four years, took sharp exception to his colleague's characterization.

"Sen. Hayden always tends to paint this horrific picture," Costa said. "What he refuses to acknowledge is that the current law is not working--endangered species are staying on the list instead of recovering."

Costa said his bill--which will affect 30 million acres in cultivation in California--would help species by encouraging farmers to create wildlife habitat on the margins of their property. Growers are reluctant to do that now "because they're terrified that they'll be criminally prosecuted if an endangered species is attracted to their land," Costa said.

John McCaull, a lobbyist for the Audubon Society, agreed that the bill offers "tremendous potential" for habitat creation. Among the species likely to benefit most, he said, are the Swainson's hawk, the giant garter snake, the willow flycatcher, the bank swallow, the Valley elderberry longhorn beetle and several species of kangaroo rats.

McCaull, who was one of several environmentalists on a negotiating team that produced the Costa and Johnston bills, called them a good compromise. But he said the Wilson administration must spend more money on habitat acquisition and to develop plans to help endangered species rebound.

In related action Friday, Wilson also signed:

* AB 1280 by Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno), allocating $200,000 to the Department of Fish and Game for a recovery plan for the greater sandhill crane. An estimated 6,000 cranes--tall, stately birds that nest in tall grass and sport striking reddish crowns--winter in California's Central Valley.

* AB 21 by Assemblyman Keith Olberg (R-Victorville), which streamlines the permit process for developers who encounter endangered species. Under the bill, a landowner who obtains a federal permit to kill or harm a species as a consequence of development need not obtain a state permit for the same purpose.

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