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Pact splits environmentalists

Some back the deal to protect 90% of Tejon Ranch Co. land and allow development on the rest. Others say condors will be at risk.

July 07, 2008|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Environmentalists who brokered a landmark agreement with a developer to set aside 240,000 acres of California wilderness are facing the ire of colleagues within the conservation community who contend that they, as one detractor put it, "sold out to the forces of destruction."

The pact's potential effect on the California condor has prompted the harshest criticism, and has brought personal attacks as well.

Under the accord unveiled in May after two years of confidential negotiations, Tejon Ranch Co. will preserve 90% of its holdings in the Tehachapi Mountains, about 60 miles north of Los Angeles.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, July 11, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 107 words Type of Material: Correction
Tejon Ranch: An article in Monday's California section about a project in the Tehachapi Mountains incorrectly characterized the views of some environmentalists who helped broker an agreement with the Tejon Ranch Co. to save 240,000 acres from development. The article said that raptor specialist Pete Bloom, who works for the company as its lead condor consultant, and leaders of a coalition of environmental groups hoped the agreement would speed up the permitting process for development on part of the property. Although Bloom said he feels that way, the coalition leaders have neither expressed hope for nor indicated an interest in expediting permits for development on the ranch.

In exchange, a coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Audubon California and Natural Resources Defense Council, will not challenge massive development projects on the remaining 10% of the Tejon property.

Coalition leaders acknowledged that the proposed Tejon Mountain Village's luxury homes, spas and boutique hotels would consume about 8% of the condor habitat on the ranch. But they also said the agreement aims to protect a much larger region -- eight times the size of San Francisco -- that is still very much as 19th century frontiersman Kit Carson experienced it.

Its emerald hills and lush valleys remain unblemished by buildings and utility lines. Gray foxes and bobcats still prowl secluded meadows edged with elderberry bushes and fragrant buckeye trees; great horned owls still roost in the boughs of 11 species of oak. The region's prehistoric scavengers, the condors, are still here too, patrolling the skies above wind-swept ridgelines studded with incense cedars.

"I truly believe that because of this agreement, California condors will one day be as common here as red-tailed hawks are in Orange County," said raptor specialist Pete Bloom, who works for the company as its lead condor consultant. "But people in the condor community aren't getting it. They are my friends, and it disturbs me to be on the other side of them."

Bloom has been studying and trapping birds of prey for more than three decades, earning a high-profile reputation for having helped implement a captive breeding program in the 1980s that is credited with saving the California condor from extinction. On Easter Sunday in 1987 he detonated a cannon net from under a camouflaged pit to capture the last wild California condor.

But Bloom's contractual relationship with Tejon Ranch Co. is drawing scorn from critics, including 11 condor scientists led by his mentor, biologist Noel Snyder.

In a letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the scientists argued that Tejon Mountain Village "would result in substantial harm to condors, posing a significant threat to the recovery of this well-known and highly revered species." They also suggested "that any environmental organization might agree to such consequences is alarming and raises troubling questions about how the agreement was reached."

In an interview, Snyder said the coalition "bought into the developer's propaganda, and that antagonizes people. They are selling the condor down the river, and knifing the whole concept of critical habitat. You can't build a whole city on critical habitat."

As for Bloom, Snyder said, "He played a small role in condor conservation work. He was a condor trapper, that's all."

Adam Keats, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which is considering suing over the Tejon projects, was equally blunt about what he called an "awful" plan.

"Pete's participation with Tejon and his analysis of the supposed protections for the condor on the ranch are totally disappointing," Keats said. "We've rolled up our sleeves and we're fighting the hell out of it."

Like Snyder, Keats criticized Bloom and two other raptor experts for becoming paid consultants for the company. Keats acknowledged, however, that "Pete's last big gig was as a paid consultant and star witness" on behalf of his own Center for Biological Diversity in a court battle to stop a separate developer's proposal to build a marina near bald eagle habitat at Big Bear Lake. The center eventually prevailed.

Even so, "Pete's a hot potato now," said David Clendenen, a condor researcher and critic of the agreement. "For someone who has started a consulting business, Pete's got to be worried about being involved in this controversy. It could affect his business in the future."

For Bloom, the criticism stings.

"I anticipated a lot of heat for my work at Tejon Ranch," said Bloom, who since 1977 has operated a consultant business that specializes in threatened species and biological surveys. "But I didn't expect it to come so fast so viciously from colleagues I've worked with over the years.

"For Noel to say I'm just a condor trapper is hurtful. I don't understand why he would try and belittle me like that," Bloom said. "I'm going to weather these attacks."

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