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The Birds and the Builders

June 23, 2002

A tiny songbird that lives in coastal sage scrub has proved to be one of Orange County's most influential residents since the early 1990s. After the slow-growth debate of the late 1980s, the California gnatcatcher soon became an emblem of tensions between environmental protection and the rights of developers to build on their land. As the suburbs spread southward, the bird became the focus of debate over what it meant to lose land forever to development.

Now comes a decision by a federal judge that ensures that federal wildlife officials retain their power to modify or in rare cases ban development in designated areas, raising the bar on what land is buildable. This tougher standard will be in place until U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials can address the economic concerns developers have raised about having restrictions on their building.

The Bush administration had sought to leave the land open to development while the agency conducted its new study of the economic impact of protection on property owners. But the judge's ruling is the only sensible course of action while the data are sorted out, precisely because land subjected to the bulldozer is forever altered.

The judge has acknowledged the concerns of developers by ordering Fish and Wildlife to accelerate its review process and complete its study in 10 months, which was less than half the time the agency had sought. So there is a little something for everyone. The land and its emblematic gnatcatcher are saved from the bulldozer and the builders' concerns will be addressed quickly.

The prevention of widespread habitat destruction is especially crucial in Orange County, where several major projects are on the drawing boards. The Rancho Mission Viejo development has 14,000 homes slated for South County in a region widely praised for its remarkable biodiversity. The gnatcatcher has been a key resident of this wonderfully diverse acreage. The planned Foothill South toll road also is potentially damaging to gnatcatcher habitat. Indeed, the same judge previously ordered the federal agency to identify critical gnatcatcher habitat in the area where the road would be built.

For years, the concept of habitat preservation has been a potential meeting ground for developers and environmentalists. Now everybody on both sides speaks the language of habitat preservation. The Transportation Corridor Agencies, for example, long criticized for cutting a swath through pristine hills for the San Joaquin Hills corridor, point proudly to their restoration and creation of thousands of acres of habitat.

But while habit preservation has been a way for all sides to affirm their commitment to balance, the reality is that things change once the graders start rolling. That is why the judicial branch is an important component of environmental protection.

While there may be some delay for builders pending new rules, they ought to get their answer from an agency that previously did not satisfy their concerns. In the meantime, the land--and the tiny songbirds--get a welcome reprieve.

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