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California and the West

Agency That Marks Habitats Draws Fire From All Sides

Ecology: Both activists and developers accuse U.S. office of simply drawing huge circles on the map to protect endangered species. Many projects, from housing to a new toll road, are affected.

September 18, 2000|SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Altadena residents may see their water bills quadruple, thanks to the arroyo southwestern toad.

A Contra Costa County developer seeking to meet a housing shortage may not be able to build 200 homes because of the Alameda whip snake.

Grape farmers in the Napa Valley may not be able to irrigate their fields with creek water because of the red-legged frog.

These cases and others in California reflect a recent change in how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maps out "critical habitat"--land considered crucial for hundreds of endangered creatures and plants.

The change came after a slew of legal losses to environmental groups complaining that the agency was not designating crucial habitat where required by law. But now developers and environmentalists alike charge that the federal agency is being a sore loser, simply drawing humongous circles on the map that satisfy no one.

The new designations--from a 5.4-million-acre proposal announced last Monday for the red-legged frog in 31 counties, to nearly 800,000 acres for the California gnatcatcher--have yet to be finalized.

But nine pending designations could affect scores of projects across the state, from a controversial toll road that would bisect a state park in southern Orange County to the massive 22,000-home Newhall Ranch development near the Santa Clara River in Los Angeles County.

Some existing operations also could be affected, such as dredging of runoff basins that recharge underground water supplies for Altadena and other parts of the San Gabriel Valley. The only alternative for residents would be buying expensive imported water.

Under vital habitat law, Fish and Wildlife approval is required for anyone wanting to build on, dig or otherwise disturb federally regulated land, or receiving federal money for such a project. Although it's not clear how the changed practices will affect development, the designation allows Fish and Wildlife officials to halt projects that could destroy key habitat.

Fish and Wildlife officials insist they don't have enough money to map more specific areas, with a growing caseload and stagnant funding.

"We had to prioritize. We felt designating critical habitat was something that was expensive and time-consuming, and didn't provide enough additional protection" to justify the work, said Joan Jewett, spokeswoman for the service's Portland office.

Developers and environmentalists alike say the agency's policy of designating habitat wholesale is foolishly shortsighted.

"What they're doing now--throwing in massive amounts of unoccupied habitat--is a violation of the Endangered Species Act and they're going to get sued over it probably 100 times in 20 different states," said Laer Pearce, executive director of the Coalition for Habitat Conservation, a group of major developers and utility companies.

California is home to 288 species on the brink of extinction--more than one-fifth of all listed species in the United States. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 requires designation of crucial habitat within a year of when a species is listed as threatened or endangered.

"If we expect to stop the extinction crisis, which is gripping not only the world but Southern California in particular, people need to recognize that the habitat of species needs to be preserved," said Andrew Wetzler, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council's Los Angeles office.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and the Fish and Wildlife Service have long complained that protected habitat designations are costly efforts, providing little if any extra protection to a species already listed as endangered or threatened.

However, the courts have repeatedly disagreed, ordering designations for 282 species in the service's Pacific region alone in response to environmentalist lawsuits.

The service says it lacks the funding to create specific maps that delineate critical habitat while excluding roads, strip malls and other land that contains no habitat.

Nancy Gloman, chief of the service's office of conservation and classification in Washington, D.C., said developments falling under the critical-habitat designation will be evaluated on an individual basis.

That further inflames developers and environmentalists.

"Developers look at designations and assume that what's going to end up being critical habitat is 99%. Environmentalists [think] it's going to be 5%. That's why we're both upset, and that's why it's to the political advantage of the service to do this," said Wetzler of the defense council.

Developers agree.

"Frankly, the service ignored the statute in its refusal to designate critical habitat, and [following the court decisions] is now ignoring the statute in how it's going about the designation," said Pearce.

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