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California and the West

Lompoc Beach Closures to Save Animals Spark Battle

Environment: Local governments, fishermen, surfers and farmers protest the shutdowns over the snowy plover and tiger salamander, both endangered species.

March 20, 2000|SALLY ANN CONNELL and JAMES RAINEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LOMPOC, Calif. — A breathtaking stretch of beach near here has been closed to the public and farmers a short distance inland prevented from tilling their land, as the federal government moved dramatically in recent months to save two endangered species along the Central Coast.

Good news for a tiny shorebird, a slightly larger salamander and their environmental advocates has rankled many people in Santa Barbara County. Surfers and beach goers say they have been deprived of one of the few public access points on a long stretch of coast controlled by Vandenberg Air Force Base and private ranchers. Farmers complain that they've been forced to change the way they have done business for generations.

There is a sense on both sides that such environmental confrontations will become more common as the region's rural roots and its increasingly suburban future collide.

"We're very concerned about these issues and how they're being handled by [the U.S.] Fish and Wildlife [Service], both on a personal level and an economic level," said Lompoc Mayor Dick DeWees. "People come here from all over to fish out at Ocean and Surf [beaches], and farming is a lifeblood for this whole area."

But environmental advocates said the government is finally trying to restore a delicate ecological balance in the region, thrown out of whack as both population and agriculture have boomed.

"We have a moral obligation to protect other inhabitants of this planet, not only for their intrinsic values but so our great-grand-children will be able to see these tiger salamanders and snowy plovers and the land that supports them," said Brian Trautwein, an analyst with the Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Fund.

The environmental controversies began in earnest in January, when the fish and wildlife agency placed the population of tiger salamanders in Santa Barbara County on the endangered species list.

Federal officials had considered the listing for years. They made the "emergency" designation when biologists reported that the creatures--6 to 12 inches long with dramatic yellow splotches on dark bodies--had declined rapidly as much of their habitat was plowed under to make way for new vineyards and crops.

A dozen property owners were notified that the endangered species listing meant they would have to curtail activities that might harm the salamanders' burrows or breeding pools. Destruction of those habitats or the death of a salamander will be considered an illegal "taking" under the Endangered Species Act, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $50,000 fine.

Under the act, landowners must present the Fish and Wildlife Service with "habitat conservation plans" for the acreage where salamanders might dwell.

Farmers see the requirement as just the latest case of government intervention in their lives. Many have spurned suggestions that they cooperate with federal agents. "You are afraid to let anyone on your land," said rancher Jim Campbell, whose family has operated 1,200 acres near Lompoc for 75 years. "Today it's the salamander, tomorrow it's who knows what."

Farmers have protested loudly at public hearings. One agricultural lawyer estimated that as many as 23 ponds and 29,000 acres may eventually be affected by the endangered species designation.

"The feeling is that this is just another layer of bureaucracy and restriction on their operations," said Rich Morgantini, secretary-manager of the 2,000-member Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau. "It's one thing here and one there and, eventually, it may force people out of business."

The growers' frustration has intensified as wildlife agency officials have been unable to outline which activities are prohibited, instead calling for surveys of each farm. Even killing ground squirrels might be considered a violation of federal law, because it could reduce the number of burrows where the salamanders make their homes.

"In the past, a ground squirrel was considered a pest," Morgantini said with a sigh. "Now it's a host for an endangered species."

But environmentalists insist that farmers and salamanders need not be pitted against each other. They plan a news conference today to describe conservation programs that would pay farmers to keep sensitive land out of cultivation.

"If we work together we can protect farming and the salamanders," Trautwein said.

The salamander controversy was already churning at the start of this month, when Vandenberg Air Force Base and the Fish and Wildlife Service negotiated an agreement to protect the western snowy plover. The tiny bird's population at four beaches on the base had dropped from 238 to just 78 adults in two years. Two of those beaches, Ocean and Surf, have traditionally been open to the public.

Nearly five miles of beach was closed by the Air Force, leaving only half a mile of Surf Beach for the public and an additional three-quarters of a mile of the strand for military personnel.

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