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Riverside County Creates Preserve

The land-use plan sets aside 500,000 acres for habitat but may scrap protection elsewhere.

June 18, 2003|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Amid high praise from top government wildlife officials, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted unanimously to adopt a sweeping 75-year conservation plan.

The plan could create a 500,000-acre preserve system, using $1 billion or more in developer fees and public funds to acquire large, connected pieces of land that serve as habitat for 146 species. But the measure also could eliminate protections for endangered species on another 500,000 to 700,000 acres, and streamline housing, highway and industrial projects in those areas.

Federal and state agencies must now study whether the plan would protect endangered or threatened species, and whether to issue giant "take" permits that would allow builders to harm or destroy endangered wildlife on the unprotected land. The agencies have promised to decide by late September. Several state and federal wildlife and parks officials were on hand at the vote, singing the county's praises.

"We want to signal our support, our enthusiasm, and our gratitude," said state resources secretary Mary Nichols. "It's a bold thing that Riverside County has done."

"I see you as a shining example," said state fish and game director Robert Hight. "You are absolutely on the forefront in dealing with species and development."

The program is designed to pay willing sellers fair market value for their land, but critics say that by targeting certain land for conservation, property values in those areas are illegally reduced.

"This is government congratulating itself on the biggest taking of private property since they took land from the Indians," said Bill Johnson, who wants to build a resort on 9,000 acres around Vail Lake, which has been deemed a core conservation area.

The plan also could face numerous environmental lawsuits. Representatives from the Center for Biological Diversity and the Audubon Society both are examining whether to bring legal challenges.

A case challenging a key provision included in the Riverside plan and about 300 others like it across the country is also moving through federal court. Known as the "no surprises" case, it seeks to eliminate the assurances that developers and others receive under the conservation plans. It was filed by Spirit of the Sage Council, a Pasadena grass-roots group, after the first "no surprises" plan was enacted in neighboring Orange County in 1994.

Another challenge was filed in 1999. District Judge Emmett Sullivan heard arguments in Washington, D.C., last Friday.

Leeona Klippstein, head of the council, may sue just on the Riverside plan as well.

"It's not scientifically sound and a failure from the beginning, because the development interests were running all the meetings and deciding how much habitat would be saved and where," she said.

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