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Wildlife Measure Divides Environmentalists

Legislature: Critics say bill designed to protect rare species favors developers. Others call it a step in right direction.


A bill poised for passage in Sacramento as early as today, originally designed to strengthen protections for wildlife, has divided environmentalists and prompted criticism that it offers too many concessions to businesses.

Others say the bill is the most important step in a decade to protect endangered animals and plants from extinction.

First passed by the Senate and then amended by the Assembly, the bill returns to the Senate for final review today.

The bill has strong backing from environmental groups, along with some business interests and the administration of Gov. Gray Davis.

"I think it's the way for a new era of comprehensive land use and habitat," said state Resources Secretary Mary Nichols.

Proponents of the bill, sponsored by state Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford), argue that it will entice a variety of landowners, including timber companies and real estate firms, to enter into pacts to protect rare wildlife.

Opponents of the bill, including the Sierra Club, fear that the current version could free landowners from any responsibilities for wildlife, even if animals' numbers dwindled as the result of unexpected events, such as fires, earthquakes or epidemics.

The debate over the Sher bill dramatizes the difficulties government faces in California and nationwide in striking a compromise between the needs of the economy and fast-disappearing wildlife, especially on private land.

The state appeared to have struck such a balance in the early 1990s with a nationally touted pilot program in San Diego and Orange counties that allowed home building to continue while protecting a rare songbird called the California gnatcatcher. That program allows participating landowners to destroy rare plants and animals, or their habitat, if they agree to set aside land or money to protect wildlife elsewhere.

The pilot program, created by the administration of former Gov. Pete Wilson, won strong support from Southern California home builders such as the Irvine Co., which entered into a 75-year agreement in 1996.

The same approach was embraced by the Davis administration, which hopes to create similar pacts in other areas of the state, such as Yolo, Contra Costa, Santa Clara and San Luis Obispo counties.

But the Southern California plans drew criticism from environmental groups that said the plans promised too much to developers, and lacked sufficient scientific guidelines to protect wildlife--especially in legal pacts that could last 50 or 75 years.

Further angering environmental groups was a federal policy of the Clinton administration known as "no surprises" that promised participating landowners that even if natural disasters killed more species than expected, they would not be required to contribute more money or land.

For landowners, however, that assurance has often been the most attractive part of the program, because it allows them to do long-term planning without the specter of new regulatory demands.

Many environmental groups looked to the Sher bill--sponsored by one of the Legislature's strongest environmental proponents--to strengthen the protections offered by such plans.

The bill sets forth a long list of new requirements for public participation, for monitoring of newly created wildlife reserves and management and conservation goals.

"It clarifies and strengthens both the scientific and legal basis for the plan," said Nichols, who had publicly expressed doubts about the existing program when Davis named her resources secretary three years ago.

"It's a balance that allows for the protection of species and for constructive development," said Robert Hight, director of the state Department of Fish and Game.

The bill is backed by such national groups as Defenders of Wildlife and, most recently, the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"There's a whole new level of accountability," said Kim Delfino of the Defenders of Wildlife's California office.

But amendments to Sher's original language have prompted some groups to oppose the measure, notably the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, fearing that it echoes the federal "no surprises" policy.

Specifically, the bill says the Department of Fish and Game may grant assurances to landowners, taking into account such facts as how much is known about the plants and animals affected and the size and duration of the plan.

Though those assurances are drawing criticism from some environmentalists, others disagree.

The Sher bill offers stronger protections for species than similar federal conservation plans, said Eric Glitzenstein, a Washington-based environmental attorney who is leading a legal challenge to the federal "no surprises" rule. He calls its assurances to developers "far less draconian and far less environmentally risky" than the federal rule.

Some environmentalists also criticize the Sher bill's provision that landowners do not need to set aside reserves, as the Irvine Co. did, but can substitute what the bill calls "equivalent conservation of covered species." But it is exactly that language that could help landowners with so-called working landscapes--land used for timber or farming, supporters say. For instance, it might allow timber companies to continue cutting trees while altering harvesting practices to protect species, supporters say.

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