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.: Corvallis Gazette-Times :. News
Feds propose $2 billion plan to protect seasonal pools



SACRAMENTO, Calif. Federal wildlife regulators on Thursday proposed a $2 billion plan to rescue a score of tiny, uniquely adapted but endangered plant and animal species that dwell only in shallow ponds that come to life each winter and disappear each summer across much of California and southern Oregon.

But the plan is voluntary, with no cost or effect on property owners unless they choose to participate.

Developers and farmers have over the years plowed under or over 75 percent of the vernal pools that once dotted 22 million acres of the coastal states.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's designation last year of 740,000 acres as critical habitat for the seasonal ponds and the creatures that dwell there have prompted lawsuits and acrimonious hearings. Environmental groups want more safeguards, while builders fear protections would stall housing needed to keep up with growth particularly in the fast-growing Central Valley region of California.

The recovery plan the service proposed for public review Thursday grew out of a settlement of the first in a continuing series of lawsuits over the critical habitat designation, but is a separate and purely cooperative approach.

"Partnerships with private landowners are the key" to saving the species, Steve Thompson, manager of the service's California-Nevada office, said in announcing the proposal.

Property owners could continue "compatible activities" on their land, enter conservation agreements that would protect their land from development in perpetuity, and qualify for federal funding to protect and restore the vernal pools and their inhabitants, Thompson said. The plan also calls for monitoring both the species' populations and the effectiveness of protection efforts.

The plan sets protection of 683,000 acres as its first priority, saying those pools are vital to saving 20 threatened and endangered plants and animals from extinction or irreversible decline. That alone would cost an estimated $771.7 million.

The focus would shift to other areas as needed to protect the 10 endangered plants, five threatened plants, three endangered animals, and two threatened animals, all designated as such under the federal Endangered Species Act. Protecting all the 1.5 million acres included in the proposal would cost an estimated nearly $2.1 billion.

The proposal includes no funding itself, but once adopted would be used to seek and target money from federal, state, local and private sources, said service spokesman James Nickles: "It'll be funded in a piecemeal fashion over many years."

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