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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Habitat Conservation Planning: Planning for Destruction?

Air Date: Week of

As many as half of U.S. endangered species depend on lands which are privately owned for their survival. The federal government along with business have been second guessing ecosystems and coming up with plans for species protection, but some environmentalists argue these plans are actually sealing the doom of these creatures. Keith Seinfeld from member station KPLU in Seattle reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Many landholders become unhappy when the government tells them that the use of their property will be limited for the sake of an endangered species. And recent biological surveys show that more than half of America's endangered species may depend on private land for their survival. the Clinton Administration thinks it's found a solution. It's called Habitat Conservation Planning, and it reduces the element of surprise for property holders. Many conservationists don't agree. They say these plans will not work, and instead will ensure the demise of fragile ecosystems. From member station KPLU in Seattle, Keith Seinfeld filed this report.

(Beeps amidst static)

SEINFELD: Loren Hicks has been tracking northern spotted owls as the chief biologist for Plum Creek Timber Company.

HICKS: This is an example of one of the radios that we put on the owls. This is a transmitter. We attach it to the base of the tail feathers.

SEINFELD: Mr. Hicks has radios on 6 of the endangered owls, which he tracks through old growth forests. Plum Creek owns more than 170,000 acres of Cascade Mountain forests here, about an hour east of downtown Seattle. It's a patchwork of clear-cuts, tree farms, and some prime old growth Douglas fir. More than 100 owls live in the area, one of the densest populations anywhere. They've shut down half the company's operations here because logging's restricted within 1.8 miles of any nest.

(An engine revs up)

SEINFELD: Resuming on a snowmobile down an old logging road, a white corridor through dense evergreens, we're heading for owl habitat.

(Motor engine continues; fade to sleet)

SEINFELD: As sleet falls alongside a frozen lake, the biologist points his radio device in various directions.

HICKS: There he is.

SEINFELD: It beeps when the antenna locates an owl.

HICKS: Looks like the male of the pair is right across the lake at a fairly low elevation right along the shore.

SEINFELD: Plum Creek's been watching the owls for more than 5 years now, because wherever they build nests the company has to stop logging. And the company also has to keep an eye on ever-changing interpretations of the Endangered Species Act by courts and regulators. Mr. Hicks admits all this uncertainty has led many landowners to cut down what they can as fast as possible.

HICKS: There's not much incentive for a landowner to want to do the right thing if at the time it becomes time for him to reap the economic benefits of that it's suddenly taken away from him by another rule or a law that he couldn't foresee at that time.

SEINFELD: But now Plum Creek's getting the predictability it says it needs to do the right thing. Through what's called a Habitat Conservation Plan. It's an agreement with Federal agencies. The company studied its holdings in surrounding lands around the Cascades and drew up a management plan to preserve nearly 300 species, from grizzly bears to salamanders and owls. The idea is to protect species that are on the endangered list and ones that might become endangered. The plan will last 50 years. During that time, Plum Creek can log most of the land, but on a slower, gentler schedule than in the past, preserving a variety of hillsides and stream corridors for wildlife. The plan's costing the company millions of dollars, but they're willing to pay that price.

HICKS: The best thing for Plum Creek in having a Habitat Conservation Plan is providing a predictable regulatory and economic environment.

SEINFELD: Habitat plans have been an option for 15 years, but they were rarely used under Presidents Reagan and Bush. The Clinton Administration began promoting the plans, but companies didn't start lining up until 1994. That's when the Administration announced its no surprises policy. No surprises is a promise built into every habitat plan that there will be no new environmental demands, even if conditions change or new information emerges. As an incentive it's worked. A flood of applications is keeping the Fish and Wildlife Service busy. Major landowners in southern California, Texas, Florida, and North Carolina are creating habitat plans. They're setting aside some land as wildlife preserves so they can develop the rest. But environmentalists say the government's in too big a rush to satisfy landowners.

(Digging and footfalls)

SEINFELD: Charlie Rains of the Sierra Club's been keeping an eye on Plum Creek's forest for years, first as a volunteer and now in a full-time job.

RAINS: Shall we walk out and see a little bit? See what we can see.


SEINFELD: We're in the heart of Plum Creek's forest, just a few miles from the radio-tagged owls. It's a spot frequented by cross-country skiers and snowmobilers.


SEINFELD: We climb a small hill and he points at the mountain in front of us, where a straight line separates dark green forest from bare clear-cut, as if some giant plucked away the trees with a square cookie-cutter. It's one of the areas that's been transformed by decades of logging. Charlie Rains says he's glad Plum Creek is committed to managing for habitat in the future. The problem, he says, is in the details of their plan.

RAINS: When you read the fine print, the lawyers for Plum Creek have been very successful in protecting themselves while still sounding like that they're taking the full responsibility for their actions. The certainty that's talked about is on the side of Plum Creek, and the risk is on the side of the wildlife.

SEINFELD: It's a risk, he says, because whatever the company and government agree to, there will be surprises. There's still a lot to be learned, for example, about the impacts of clear-cuts like the one here, or about how to manage an old growth forest. Even when left alone, ecosystems are ever-changing.

RAINS: We have to recognize that we don't really understand how this system works. We have just scratched the surface in understanding how this system works. And yet the Fish and Wildlife Service is willing to sign a contract for 50 years, assuming that we understand this.

(Footfalls and bird calls)

SEINFELD: For its part the Clinton Administration says the no surprises policy does not ignore new discoveries. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is probably the biggest promoter of habitat planning.

BABBITT: Science does provide new insights, but there's enough flexibility in these conservation plans that adjustments can be made, and there are in all of these habitat conservation plans, you know, language which suggests that if there are major issues that arise, the plans can be adjusted.

SEINFELD: Secretary Babbitt says the plans are actually meant to prevent one of the biggest surprises, having another species become endangered. And he says it's only fair to give landowners security if they're conserving habitat. About a half dozen environmental groups have sued Secretary Babbitt over the no surprises policy. It's a procedural challenge. They say a rule was created without proper public review. But a bigger problem, they say, is the no surprises approach merely compounds a basic flaw in the Endangered Species Act. That it only kicks into action after there's already a shortage of habitat. According to Bill Snape, legal director for Defenders of Wildlife, these habitat plans are locking in a situation where species and ecosystems are on a downward slope.

SNAPE: Our feeling very strongly is that these habitat conservation plans not only are not leading toward recovery, that they're actually heading in the opposite direction in many cases and leading to the potential extinction of many species and certainly the declines of many.

SEINFELD: Mr. Snape and others consider the no surprises clause more of a political tool than a scientific one. They say the Clinton Administration is trying to fend off a landowner revolt against the Endangered Species Act. But they think the Administration is being too timid. They say the law, along with court decisions on the limits of property rights, give government plenty of power to insist landowners preserve enough habitat. The debate over the Endangered Species Act, at least in Congress, is deadlocked. It's several years overdue for reauthorization, and neither side's been able to muster the votes for strengthening or weakening it. And some say the political deadlock itself is making it hard to protect ecosystems. J.B. Rule, an endangered species scholar at Southern Illinois University, who once represented local governments and small landowners, says officials are left tinkering at the margins of an outdated law.

RULE: We don't have a law right now that's really telling us at the Federal level how this is supposed to happen. Who does what, who makes which decisions. We're cramming all this into a provision of the Endangered Species Act that was passed in 1982 as an amendment to the Act. Well, we're, you know, 15 years and a lot of knowledge later.

SEINFELD: Professor Rule endorses the call for a new law that focuses explicitly on ecosystem planning instead of on individual species. But he says it also should be sensitive to property rights. He suggests one part of the answer might be a national loan fund to help buy property that can't be used without harming an ecosystem. Such a fund might take the pressure off both landowners and endangered species. But this also might undermine the central idea behind habitat conservation plans, that people can use the land and still have enough room for threatened species. For Living on Earth, I'm Keith Seinfeld in Seattle.



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