Nearly 500,000 acres in California will be proposed as critical habitat for the endangered Southwestern arroyo toad by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday.
The move could affect some of the most prominent development projects in the region, including the massive Newhall Ranch development, which would straddle the Santa Clara River in Los Angeles County, and the proposed 16-mile Foothill South toll road in southern Orange County.
In addition to the Los Angeles and Orange county areas, land stretching through Monterey, Santa Barbara, Ventura, San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties will be included, said Jenny Valdivia, a regional spokeswoman in the Fish and Wildlife office in Portland, Ore.
The designation--part of a legal settlement with the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity--will also affect parts of the San Bernardino, Cleveland, Angeles and Los Padres national forests, said David Hogan, rivers program coordinator for the center's San Diego office, which sued to win the critical habitat designation.
The tiny, buff-colored toad, which was listed as endangered in 1994, is on the brink of extinction in the foreseeable future, Valdivia said. Under the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973, land crucial to a species' survival must be designated as critical habitat when the species is listed as endangered or threatened.
But federal officials have balked at designating habitat for the toad and scores of other endangered species, citing fears that collectors would use the information to devastate the dwindling populations.
Instead, environmentalists have won designations for more than 200 species by suing.
The latest designation will not directly affect private landowners' rights or create preserves. But the move does affect activities that receive federal funds or require federal regulatory approval.
That includes federal permits to fill in wetlands, creek beds and other habitat during construction of housing or roads.
In the past, developers have won permits after agreeing to set aside or create other habitat in exchange for destroying protected areas.
Newhall Land and Farming Co., which is planning 22,000 homes on 12,000 acres in Los Angeles County, could be affected, Hogan said. The Santa Clara River area supports "fantastic arroyo toad habitat," he said.
Marlee Lauffer, spokeswoman for Newhall Land and Farming, said: "I won't answer hypothetical questions, so we'll have to look at their designation."
She added that the company has not found any arroyo toads on its property.
The habitat proposal for the arroyo toad could also affect the controversial Foothill South toll road.
"Several streams . . . in Southern California and in Orange County, including San Juan Creek, should be included in the proposal," Hogan said. "It could have a significant effect on the toll road."
Attempts to reach toll road officials late Monday were unsuccessful. However, Transportation Corridor Agencies spokeswoman Lisa Telles has previously said such designations will not affect the future of Foothill South because the agency has been working with federal officials all along. The agency and developers in Orange County have been allowed to compensate for destroying habitat by creating or restoring similar habitat elsewhere or setting aside large chunks of preserved land.
Laer Pearce, executive director of the Coalition for Habitat Conservation, a group of major developers including the Irvine Co. and the Rancho Mission Viejo Co., objected that the designation, like others, will probably be far too broad, creating more bureaucracy and wasting resources.
In the past, Fish and Wildlife has proposed extremely broad critical habitat boundaries, saying it lacks the resources to detail every chunk of habitat. For the California gnatcatcher, for example, officials mapped out nearly 800,000 acres, much of which included already developed property.
"It's a monstrous problem in Southern California," Pearce said. "The Endangered Species Act only requires designating habitat that is critical to the survival of the species. [Fish and Wildlife] is doing massive landscapes that include habitat these species never touched upon. . . . All of a sudden, there isn't going to be anything left that isn't designated critical for one thing or another."
Pearce said the Natural Communities Conservation Plan, under which developers set aside large chunks of land in exchange for being able to destroy habitat elsewhere, is the most effective way of protecting a species.
Hogan said his group and others plan to file a lawsuit later this year that would block developers from being allowed to make up for destroying habitat in that manner. Such "mitigation plans," as they are called, violate the Endangered Species Act, he said.