SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court gave new protection to the state's endangered species Thursday, ruling unanimously that developers, loggers and other commercial interests may be required to compensate for unforeseen wildlife losses.
The ruling, which affects both public works and private development, threw out a long-term logging plan approved by the state for 200,000 acres in Humboldt County, a plan that lower courts put on hold several years ago.
The state high court said the Department of Forestry had approved an "unidentifiable" plan that was still a work in progress and then delegated its completion to the logging company.
Justice Carlos R. Moreno, writing for the court, called the Forestry Department's action illegal and an abrogation of its duties.
The California Department of Forestry "failed to proceed according to law," Moreno wrote.
The decision grew out of lawsuits that followed the historic Headwaters Agreement, a 1996 pact between Pacific Lumber Co. and the state and federal governments. It was designed to resolve litigation and disputes over the logging of old-growth forests.
The battle between loggers and environmentalists centered on land that had been in timber production for 120 years and was home to the marbled murrelet, an endangered bird. After Pacific Lumber was acquired by Maxxam Inc. in 1996, Pacific began cutting down old-growth redwoods at a faster rate to offset Maxxam's debt. The deforestation led to litigation and huge protests.
The pact required Pacific Lumber to sell part of its land to the government for conservation and to obtain environmental permits.
Thursday's ruling ends a long-running battle over those permits but is not expected to unravel the pact. The decision established rules that the state must follow in approving large-scale logging plans or any major development that might endanger wildlife facing extinction.
Environmentalists and labor groups praised the ruling, saying it would help make the state more vigilant before granting permits for environmentally sensitive work.
The decision will help ensure that "landowners fully account for their impacts and the agencies today don't give away the store and bind the hands of future management requirements," said Paul Mason, deputy director of Sierra Club California.
The court said permits allowing companies to kill endangered and threatened species during the course of development should not make the industry immune from having to take future measures to compensate for unexpected wildlife losses.
Although companies need not compensate for species killed in natural disasters out of the industry's control, they must mitigate for wildlife losses when the company's conduct contributed to them or when a natural disaster makes the commercial activity more threatening to endangered wildlife, the court said.
"When natural disasters change baseline conditions, then logging activities that previously would not have had a significant impact on endangered species may now have such an impact," Moreno wrote.
Industry critics expressed fears that the ruling could deter companies from entering into voluntary conservation plans.
Paul Weiland, a land-use lawyer who represented the building industry in the case, said developers might be reluctant to sign an agreement that requires them to compensate for unforeseen losses of wildlife above and beyond what they have been required to spend for mitigation to get the permit.
Permits for the taking of endangered species can be in effect for several decades. Pacific's endangered species permit was for 50 years.
"The question is, who should bear that risk," Weiland said. "People are willing to take on a permit when they feel they understand the risk, but when the risk is unknowable, people are less inclined to do it."
Jonathan Weissglass, who represented the labor industry in the case, said the ruling would prevent agencies from signing off on uncompleted logging plans.
"If agencies were able to get away with what they did here, it would be a complete disaster," he said.
Scott Greacon, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center, a Humboldt County-based forestry conservation group, agreed.
"Clearly any sustained yield plan will have to reside in a single document," he said.
But he said the protection of endangered species was an even more important element of the ruling.
"The ruling means the state Department of Fish and Game can't tie its own hands and prevent itself from imposing mitigation in future years if circumstances change and require those measures to protect species," Greacon said.