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Wildlife Agency Outlines Plan to Protect Wetlands

Environment: The tardy proposal would shield vernal pools in California and Oregon.


More than a year after a federal judge ordered them to do it, officials of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday proposed a protection plan for 1.7 million acres across California and southern Oregon that are dotted with seasonal wetlands inhabited by 15 species of rare springtime wildflowers and crustaceans.

Targeting 36 California counties stretching from Siskiyou south to Riverside, the "critical habitat" plan would create protected zones around tiny vernal pools, shielding them from potentially destructive commercial or agricultural activity.

Vernal pools are small, shallow bodies of water that appear annually in rainy seasons, quickly filling with tiny fairy shrimp and concentric rings of colorful native wildflowers. The main threat to their existence is loss of habitat, according to federal wildlife officials.

"They are the most charming little habitats you'd ever want to see," said Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Jim Nickles. "As soon as the rainy season begins in California, what would appear to be lifeless hills and plains suddenly bloom into this incredible array of color."

The proposed acreage includes a large swath where a new University of California campus is supposed to be built in the Sierra foothills east of Merced. But federal and university officials said they did not think that the proposal would interfere with construction.

Authorized by the federal Endangered Species Act, critical habitat designations often provoke opposition because they can restrict development on federal lands--and property where federal funds are used. Defenders say it is necessary for the recovery of threatened animals and plants.

The Butte Environmental Council in Chico, which sued the Fish and Wildlife Service to set aside critical habitat for four species of endangered fairy shrimp, won a court order in February 2001 forcing the designation of critical habitat within six months. In July 2001, the service won a yearlong extension by agreeing to include habitat for 11 wildflowers as well. The day before the plan was due this August, federal officials filed another request for an extension through next year.

The environmental council sought a contempt order Monday against Fish and Wildlife officials, seeking to have them jailed and fined, to stop them from approving construction in possible critical habitat areas. The judge is expected to rule in a few days.

"The agency is thumbing their nose at the court's order," said Neil Levine, an attorney with Earthjustice, a national nonprofit group that is providing legal counsel to the small Chico-based council.

Levine and others said the agency's delays were part of deliberate stalling tactics by the Bush administration on endangered species protection. "It's sort of outrageous how this law-and-order administration chooses to disobey a court order," Levine said.

Fish and Wildlife officials acknowledged they had missed deadlines set by U.S. District Judge William Shubb, but said it had nothing to do with politics.

Sacramento field supervisor Wayne White said the delay was unavoidable because of a huge backlog of critical habitat work, limited staffing and the detailed mapping necessary to identify areas for protection.

"Designating critical habitat for 15 different species throughout a large area of California is not something you do with a crayon," he said.

White said he knew he could be held in contempt and jailed, but that his staff was close to reaching an agreement with the environmental group that could give them until next summer to complete required public hearings and economic analysis.

By law, the Fish and Wildlife Service can decide that the economic burden of critical habitat outweighs environmental benefits.

Representatives of farmers and developers said Tuesday that because they receive federal money for crops, road building and other projects, the critical habitat designation could apply to private lands.

The plan could stop badly needed housing development, prevent farmers from planting new types of crops, and cost millions of dollars in additional studies and mitigation, according to David Smith, general counsel for the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California, and the director of natural resources for the Farm Bureau Federation.

Environmentalists said the proposed vernal pool designation was vital. "We've already lost 90% of our wetlands in California, and what remains is very precious," said Barbara Vlamis, executive director of the group that brought the suit.

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