A century and a half ago, California's red-legged frog graced the menus of gourmet restaurants in San Francisco and helped launch a young American writer named Mark Twain, who immortalized the leaping Gold Rush wonder in his first published short story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."
Humans have not repaid the favor since, gobbling up not just the long-legged amphibian but nearly all of its wetland habitat for crops and homes, threatening it with extinction.
On Thursday, as part of a continued, far-reaching rollback of protected landscapes for scores of imperiled species around the country, federal officials proposed cutting 82% of the celebrated frog's critical habitat.
The House of Representatives has passed a bill that would eliminate federally protected critical habitat on 150 million acres of largely undeveloped public and private land. The Senate could act on the legislation by year's end.
But even without legislative action, the Bush administration is eliminating critical-habitat designations around the country. Administration officials say that habitat protections cost landowners billions and that voluntary plans work better for landowners and wildlife.
In numerous cases, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and her top deputies, citing their own cost estimates, have agreed with builders and property owners that the financial burden of habit protections outweighed any benefit to species.
The frog is a case in point, they said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a study that showed nearly $500 million in costs to homebuilders for protecting the frog's habitat.
But conservationists say voluntary plans are unproven and should be used to supplement government regulations, not replace them. And some economists and biologists say senior Interior Department officials are deliberately ignoring the economic, scientific and social benefits of preserving habitat.
Many threatened plants and animals won't make it, biologists say, if their sanctuary continues to shrink as part of a rollback of habitat protections under the Endangered Species Act. Among the California species that environmentalists are most concerned about, if the rollback continues, are the peninsular bighorn sheep, Steller sea lions, desert tortoises and northern spotted owls.
The critical-habitat provision of the Endangered Species Act requires government scientists to identify items such as soil, vegetation, water quality and temperature that a vulnerable species needs, and then to map areas where those conditions still exist.
Biologists say society loses when habitat is destroyed. When streams are encased in concrete, besides dooming creatures such as the frog, the waterways become sluices that funnel pesticides, battery acid and household waste into the ocean.
"By preserving the environment for endangered species, you automatically preserve the clean air that you breathe and the clean water you drink," said Ileene Anderson, a botanist with the California Native Plant Society.
Michael Sherwood, an attorney with the environmental group Earthjustice, said the benefits for society can be substantial.
"You're saving an endangered species for one thing.... But there are also really tangible fiscal benefits too, in terms of homeowners having open space and natural land preserved in the neighborhood.... Homeowners will pay a premium, will pay extra to get land next to preserved open space. Things like that are not taken into account in the economic analysis, so it's skewed, it's inaccurate."
Patrick Duffy, managing partner of Hanley Wood Market Intelligence in Costa Mesa, the nation's largest new-home market research firm, said adjacent open space can bump up home prices from 5% to 15%. But the premium doesn't show up in the government's economic analysis, he added.
On the other side of the debate, Paul Campos, general counsel for the Homebuilders Assn. of Northern California, said having an endangered or threatened species next door can also add costs for homeowners. In some cases, protecting species has required special fencing or even bans on residents' owning cats and dogs.
Unfortunately for wild plants and animals, much of the best natural habitat also is prime land for housing, farming and energy production.
In the case of the frog, that includes large sections of fast-growing Contra Costa, Alameda and San Mateo counties that are suffering some of the most acute housing shortages not just in the state, but in the nation, Campos said.
After his organization sued, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to reduce the frog's critical habitat from 4.1 million acres to 737,912 acres stretching from Butte and Calaveras counties in the north to Riverside County in the south.
The proposal retains about 18% of the original designation, cutting it entirely in eight counties and adding small amounts in two others.