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California and the West

New Approach to Protecting Fragile Habitats Criticized

Environment: Pacts sometimes let developers and conservationists reach compromises despite inadequate scientific input, preliminary study finds.

July 20, 1998|DEBORAH SCHOCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A much-touted national blueprint that allows development in environmentally fragile areas has sometimes failed to provide sufficient monitoring or data to ensure that plants and animals are protected from extinction, the draft of a major new study concludes.

Championed by the Clinton administration, Habitat Conservation Plans have been crafted nationwide as a pioneering means of balancing the welfare of rare wildlife with the pressures of economic growth. As conceived, they were to make peace between the two sides and avoid costly litigation, allowing developers to build while keeping fragile habitat intact.

But the draft study, developed by a research team from eight universities, indicates that some plans lacked scientific input and raises warning flags about whether some species--from rare tortoises to delicate flowers--are receiving the protection government regulators envisioned in pacts with developers, lumber companies and other landowners.

Among its recommendations, the draft study issues a strong and urgent call for changes in future Habitat Conservation Plans, or HCPs. It presses for basic scientific standards and suggests changing the law to require review of proposed plans by independent experts. And it urges more sharing of information, noting that no centralized library appears to exist for the more than 200 plans already in place.

The study was sponsored jointly by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at UC Santa Barbara and the American Institute of Biological Sciences based in Washington. It was developed over the past year by 13 faculty members and 106 graduate students from eight universities nationwide. Its findings are expected to be published by the end of the year.

When finalized, the study is expected to be the most complete scientific report card to date of one of the most significant federal environmental initiatives of the 1990s. It also is expected to fuel a mounting debate over whether the plans constitute a landmark conservation effort or, as some environmentalists claim, skimp on biological research to placate developers.

Although it found that the designers of the plans generally do a good job of gathering what details they can find about key plants and animals, it also showed there were gaps, not just in the scientific underpinnings of some plans, but in society's knowledge of the biology of rare species.

"We just don't know the information, and we don't for an awful lot of species," said Peter Kareiva, the University of Washington zoology professor who led the study. Still, he believes that with some reforms, the Habitat Conservation Plan approach can be made to work.

"It's not like in principle, it can't work," he said.

The findings could have particular impact in California, where 2.3 million acres of land are covered by 50 approved HCPs, from timberlands near the Oregon border to sage-specked hills overlooking Mexico.

"Southern California is one of the most important places in the world to be having this discussion," said Frank Davis, a UC Santa Barbara professor and deputy director of the National Center at the university.

The study is widely anticipated in Washington, and some scientists involved in the report and other experts briefed Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt on key points when they met with him in May to discuss their concerns with HCPs.

"It's absolutely clear that this is the most comprehensive review of HCPs that's been done," said Dee Boersma, president of the Society for Conservation Biology and a University of Washington professor.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has experts at its offices nationwide review the draft, and a formal agency response is due later this summer, said Laverne Smith, chief of the agency's Division of Endangered Species. She expressed concern about reporting on preliminary findings, adding that her agency could not comment until its critique is finished.

Douglas Wheeler, California secretary of resources, who has reviewed the draft study, said: "I take from the report not that we've done a good job or a bad job, but the approach we've taken is the right approach, which is to rely on science when it's available."

HCPs have been lauded with increasing fervor in Washington and Sacramento during the 1990s as a means of balancing the demands of development with the stringent standards of the Endangered Species Act. Babbitt has been among the program's leading mentors.

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In short, the program allows developers to destroy habitat containing some rare species as long as other habitat is set aside and managed for species protection. For example, Orange County's largest developer, the Irvine Co., negotiated with regulators to craft a 37,000-acre preserve for the California gnatcatcher and other rare creatures. The developer, in turn, was granted freedom from endangered species laws on certain land outside the preserve.

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