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Agency Maps Out 4.1-Million-Acre Frog Haven

Foes say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal is identical to a 2001 plan tossed out by a federal judge. Officials say they spend so much on lawsuits that they don't have time or funds for new studies.

April 14, 2004|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Federal wildlife officials Tuesday re-designated 4.1 million acres in 28 California counties as critical habitat for the endangered red-legged frog immortalized by Mark Twain. Two-thirds of the land is privately owned.

Building industry groups sued to stop the habitat designation in 2001, alleging that regulators had failed to properly analyze financial effects on housing supply and prices. A U.S. district judge in Northern California voided the plan, and regulators agreed to remap the habitat.

Builders and environmentalists expressed skepticism Tuesday, saying the re-designated habitat was nearly identical to the previous plan's.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials, noting that amphibians are on the decline globally and that they are good indicators of "serious ecosystem imbalances," said they kept the previous designations largely intact because of a lack of time and funding for new studies. Agency spokesman Al Donner said that Tuesday's proposal was just the first step and that a complete economic analysis would be done in the next year by a private firm hired by the government.

Three military bases were exempted under a new federal law governing protection of species on military land. Parts of Riverside and San Joaquin counties were also excluded because federal officials said there were other habitat conservation plans in the works there. But two recently discovered populations of the large frog in Calaveras County and in artificial ponds in Nevada County might lead to additional land being included.

Historians and scientists largely agree that it was a red-legged frog named Dan'l Webster that Mark Twain referred to in his classic Gold Rush tale, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."

The frog, the largest native amphibian west of the Rocky Mountains, was once common throughout California, Baja California and other parts of Mexico. More than a century of loss of habitat to development, pollution, reservoirs and agriculture has wiped out the frog in 70% of its former range, according to Fish and Wildlife Service officials. Remaining populations are clustered in the state's coastal mountains.

Builders and environmentalists said there were several more stages to go before the plan was finalized.

David Smith, general counsel for Building Industry Legal Defense, one of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said he had only briefly read the new proposal.

"I'm concerned, because in the [court] consent decree they acknowledged that the first time around was inadequate," Smith said. "It looks roughly like they've re-proposed what was invalidated.... It strikes me as awfully coincidental it all comes out the same."

Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the environmental groups that sued to have the frog listed as endangered in 1996, agreed that it was "essentially the same as the old proposal."

However, he said, "that's a good thing. We think that proposal covered the most important frog habitat zones. The problem is that the Bush administration has made a career out of slashing these Fish and Wildlife Service proposals to shreds and leaving scraps for the species to try to live on. It'll happen after the fact."

He said the exemptions included in the proposal were classic examples, because habitat conservation plans were, in effect, permits that allowed species to be killed and habitat to be bulldozed in exchange for preserving land elsewhere.

Richard Lashbrook, head of the Riverside Transportation and Land Management Agency, which is overseeing the county's plan, disagreed.

"We've made a substantial commitment for a reserve system for the long-term viability for not just this one species, but for a wide variety of species," he said.

In the Fish and Wildlife Service proposal, published in the Federal Register, officials said they had been "inundated with lawsuits" that had left the agency unable to concentrate on its own priorities for conserving species.

Suckling, whose group has brought the lion's share of lawsuits over critical habitat, said the number was in fact "declining dramatically" because courts had now forced designation of habitat for nearly every species for which it was legally required. He said that if federal officials had followed the law originally, they would not have been sued.

Smith, the building industry attorney, said, "It is unfortunate that the money is being spent on defending litigation as opposed to attending to the species that need attention.... As to when the job is done indefensibly, yes, we've sued them to go back and do it again."

A critical-habitat designation does not mean that private land cannot be developed. But if there is any federal connection to the land, such as federally funded roads, potentially costly and time-consuming extra approvals may be required.

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