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U.S. Officials Cut Protected Habitat Throughout State

Fish and Wildlife Service cites economic concerns in plan that eliminates preserves for endangered species in six counties. Appeal vowed.

August 07, 2003|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Bush administration officials Wednesday significantly reduced plans to designate as protected the lands where numerous endangered species in California, including fairy shrimp and wildflowers, thrive in short-lived springtime pools.

Citing concerns about economic impacts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unveiled a revised critical habitat plan that eliminates protected habitat for those species in six California counties, including Riverside and much of the Central Valley, and reduced overall protected land from nearly 1.7 million acres to about 740,000.

The land set aside for the newest University of California campus, UC Merced, also was removed from the habitat plan. Officials with the U.S. Department of the Interior, who oversee the federal wildlife service, said economic studies have shown that the original plan would be devastating to local economies, costing developers, farmers and governments an estimated $1.3 billion over the next 20 years in new costs or lost revenue.

Developers praised the decision, while environmentalists blasted it as partisan politics and vowed to appeal.

Said Assistant Interior Secretary Craig Manson: "The Endangered Species Act itself provides for the exclusion of critical habitat lands on an economic basis. It's a provision in the law, and it's been in the law for a couple of decades."

Manson said the provision increasingly is being used by Bush administration officials to correct what they see as unnecessary or flawed critical habitat plans. In part, the policy is in response to successful lawsuits by builders charging that economic impacts had not been adequately addressed.

"You've still got broad swaths of land that are being protected -- 747,000 acres is not a drop in the bucket," said Brian White, legislative advocate at the California Building Industry Assn.

White said the counties that were excluded were current or future fast-growing areas of California, and the costs of complying with critical habitat designations on top of existing fees would have driven housing prices skyward.

Laws protecting critical habitat do not ban building on private lands. However, if the land is federally regulated -- because of federal highway projects, wetlands or endangered species, for example -- property owners must go through an arduous and potentially costly permitting process.

The vernal pools at the center of the debate form in the spring, providing a home for tiny crustaceans, and creating colorful, circular rings of wildflowers and grasses.

Barbara Vlamis, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, said federal officials ignored billions of dollars in economic benefits from preserving habitat, including increased recreation and tourism, and flood protection.

She added that new development can coexist with habitat protection if the construction is higher density, which would allow more land to be set aside for species teetering on extinction.

Vlamis charged that Manson, a Republican appointee, ignored scientifically sound recommendations of Fish and Wildlife Service staff "to reflect the agenda of his political masters."

Manson, formerly of Sacramento, was a state Superior Court judge appointed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson. He resigned to accept an appointment under Interior Secretary Gail Norton.

Sacramento is one of the affected counties, with proposed protected acreage reduced from 105,628 acres to zero.

Manson said "politics in no sense played a role in this. We did what the law allows and permits us to do."

He said the decision to exclude lands in Butte, Madera, Merced, Sacramento and Solano counties "was made ... as we looked at the economic analysis."

Riverside County was excluded for another reason, he said, to encourage completion of a habitat conservation plan that would exempt builders and others from the Endangered Species Act in exchange for setting aside or contributing to purchase of conservation lands.

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