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Hawaii's Shrinking Violet May Get Federal Protection

Critical habitat designation may be given to 255 endangered plants and two bugs. Landowners fear economic effect.

November 24, 2002|Rita Beamish | Associated Press Writer

HONOLULU — In the nation's most sweeping effort to keep species from disappearing forever, the federal government may declare more than one-fifth of Hawaii as "critical habitat" for 255 endangered plants and two bugs.

They include such little-known characters as Blackburn's sphinx moth and the Kauai cave wolf spider, as well as the Aupaka violet -- the ultimate in shrinking violets, with only nine plants known to survive.

In this island state with more unique and endangered species than any other, nature's rare organisms do get respect, but many landowners, hunters and state officials believe that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is going too far this time.

The critical habitat designation would not lock up Hawaii lands just for conservation. But uncertainty and suspicion about how the federal action would play out, including its trigger on additional state regulation and its potential to inhibit state-private conservation, is creating a fierce debate.

Landowners across the islands are pleading their case and raising fears with Fish and Wildlife as it evaluates the economic impacts.

"I know we're going to be sued no matter what we do," said Paul Henson, the agency's Hawaii field supervisor. "My goal is to build a good scientific record so when a judge hears the case, he or she will say, 'You did it right, and you win.' "

The controversy stems from an Earthjustice lawsuit that led to a 1998 U.S. District Court order that directed Fish and Wildlife to designate the habitat in accordance with the Endangered Species Act.

Ranging from ferns to flowers, the 255 Hawaiian species -- some with just a few plants left -- account for a quarter of the entire U.S. endangered species list. By definition, they are not well known or beloved species, but often small, unnoticed plants and creatures with few or no admirers because they are seldom seen.

Now, they've got the power of federal law as their chief defender.

"In terms of protecting the nation's national heritage, it's precedent-setting" because of the number of species and the vast expanses of land involved, said David Henkin, attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit, public-interest law firm.

Activity in critical habitat requires federal review only if it is on federal land or involves federal money, officials say. But landowners' attorneys and Hawaii's chief forester, Mike Buck, say state law appears to require that federal critical habitat eventually be designated as state conservation land as well. That triggers a stricter regulatory regime that would bar any activity that harms the protected species.

"It's going to have a huge impact," Buck said.

"Any time any agency of the government says, 'We're going to draw a circle around your land and don't worry about it,' I don't think anybody that I know quite buys into that," said Dan Davidson, executive director of the Land Use Research Foundation of Hawaii, a landowner association that wants to confine the habitat designations mostly to existing state conservation zones.

The state owns nearly half of the 841,015 acres proposed for plant habitat, much of it rugged and unusable or already zoned for conservation. Thirty percent is in private hands, and the military controls a portion. The state also owns most of the 103,626 acres proposed as habitat for Blackburn's sphinx moth and the Kauai cave wolf spider.

Fish and Wildlife will address landowners' concerns "case by case" before settling on permanent boundaries, Henson said. The agency must consider economic impact and is aware of mainland lawsuits alleging insufficient attention to that issue.

Environmentalists, however, are wary that economic emphasis could diminish species protection. Earthjustice would "seriously consider" returning to court over that, Henkin said.

Fish and Wildlife botanist Greg Koob said the importance of saving each species goes beyond just its few remaining plants.

"This is a unique life form that's going to disappear off the face of the Earth if some protection is not given to it. Extinction is forever," he said. "Biologically, everything is interconnected. Every species is important. You lose one and there's a trickle-down effect," with plant pollination and seeds affecting insects and birds, on up the biological chain.

"If we can write off one species, it's easy to write off the next one and the next one. Eventually, you've written off too many," Koob said.

But landowners say there's another side to the story. On the Big Island of Hawaii, the Liliuokalani Trust has 340 acres of proposed habitat on the Kona coast. For 40 years, the trust has planned a large commercial and civic development there to fund its programs for native Hawaiian children. Now the land is deemed key to survival of a nettle and the elusive Aupaka violet.

"Critical habitat will cripple the trust's ability to fulfill its sacred duty," Thomas Kaulukukui Jr., trust chairman, told a Fish and Wildlife hearing.

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