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New Plan to Protect Bird Endangers Same Projects

April 25, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday said it wants to designate 495,000 acres of Southern California land -- much of it along the region's coastline -- as critical habitat to the coastal California gnatcatcher, a tiny endangered bird.

Although the area is slightly smaller than one designated three years ago, the proposal still could jeopardize construction of 14,000 homes and a toll-road extension in southern Orange County. Critical habitat is a category of protected land in which development and other uses can be limited or even barred to ensure the survival of imperiled plants and animals.

The coastal California gnatcatcher -- a songbird that typically grows to about 4 1/2 inches and one-fifth of an ounce -- was listed as a threatened species by federal officials in 1993. Fish and Wildlife officials say it's essential to protect the coastal sage scrub the gnatcatcher favors to prevent further declines in its population.

A 1980 study found that the gnatcatcher's population had declined to about 1,000 to 1,500 pairs.

The battle over the gnatcatcher's habitat has pitted environmentalists hoping to preserve the habitat against developers who say those efforts could cost Californians $5 billion and several hundred thousand jobs.

A federal judge last year ordered Fish and Wildlife officials to reconsider their original plans to protect 513,650 acres of land and to reconsider the economic effects of the proposal. Thursday's proposal, which includes land in Ventura, Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, is the result of that new study.

In jeopardy are plans to build 14,000 homes on some 23,000 acres of ranch land between Mission Viejo and San Clemente known as Rancho Mission Viejo. The ranch intends to preserve two-thirds of its land for open space utilized by endangered species, said spokeswoman Diane Gaynor.

Plans to extend the Foothill toll road from Mission Viejo to the San Diego County line also are caught up in these efforts to spare the bird's habitat. One plan would call for the toll road to reach into San Onofre State Park, which was part of the area designated for protection.

The latest federal protection proposal was greeted warmly by one environmental group.

"This spells real trouble for those two projects," said Andrew Wetzler, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The toll road agencies and Rancho Mission Viejo went in and were trying to get their land taken off the list. They've tried this before, and they failed before. They tried this again, and they failed again."

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