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Report reveals cost of critical habitat designation

By HEATHER HACKING - Staff Writer Chico Enterprise Record 6/29/05

SACRAMENTO - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Monday that conservation for 15 vernal pool species will affect $992 million in economic activity over the next 20 years, with 97 percent of that relating to lost development opportunities.

A press release from the Fish and Wildlife Service defines "critical habitat" as "geographic areas that contain features essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species and may require special management considerations or protections."

The critical habitat designation covers 740,000 acres in California and one county in Oregon. Originally, the area of land would have covered about 1.2 million acres.

In 2003, Fish and Wildlife excluded land in five counties from being included in the critical habitat: Butte, Sacramento, Solano, Merced and Madera. The reason was that the Fish and Wildlife Service decided the losses of economic development outweighed the need for habitat protection.

Barbara Vlamis of Butte Environmental Council sued the service. Just as it was about to go to court, the Interior Department asked that counties that had been excused be looked at again.

Rather than just look at those five counties, all of the counties within the designation were analyzed for economic impacts.

"That's where we are today," Vlamis said.

Vlamis explained a critical habitat area should provide better protection for endangered species because the property must be looked at as a watershed, rather than looking at just the species that would be affected. She said the intent is that "instead of looking at counting how many species would die (with development), they're supposed to protect the habitat."

However, she said, in some cases wildlife managers have been treating development on designated critical habitat the same as land not designated as critical habitat, and groups like BEC have sued and won.

Of the economic analysis, Vlamis said she has not read the entire 127-page document, but noted that economic benefits of habitat have not been included. She said things like recreation and migratory birds have a value that has not been considered.

"We have an administration, the Bush administration, that will undermine the Constitution and blatantly lie on a regular basis to the American public," Vlamis said. "It is no surprise that they are going after laws that protect the most vulnerable, whether it is Social Security, Medicare or the Endangered Species Act."

She said she expects there will be more lawsuits over the issue in the future.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is under court order to publish the proposal for critical habitat designation by July 31. The draft is available at www. fws.gov/pacific/sacramento/default. htm.

Staff writer Heather Hacking can be reached at 896-7758 or hhacking@chicoer.com.




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