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

California Species Amendments

Air Date: Week of

Plans for dozens of new construction projects will soon be back on track in California, following the passage of amendments to the state's Endangered Species Act. Cheryl Colopy has our report.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Plans for dozens of new construction projects will soon be back on track in California, following the passage of amendments to the state's Endangered Species Act. The projects had been put on hold when a court ruled that Governor Pete Wilson's waivers of the species protection law were illegal. Now the California law has been rewritten. Its proponents say the new measure will allow needed development to go forward in some sensitive areas without harming rare plants and animals. But some environmental activists disagree. Cheryl Colopy has our report.

(Hushed voices in halls)

COLOPY: The halls of California's capitol in Sacramento are quiet these days. The legislature has adjourned and the only flurry of activity is the scampering of dozens of urban squirrels on the capitol's tree-shaded lawns.

MAN 1: (on radio) Yes, they're coming out of where?

MAN 2: The Department of Fish and Game. Let me just double-check; I think they're 3160.

COLOPY: Upstairs in his office, Darryl Young worries that before long animals like squirrels, which can adapt well to human development, may be the only wildlife that will survive in California, now that the legislature has amended the state's Endangered Species Act.

YOUNG: Everyone's going to try to paint this in the best light possible, but what everyone seems to be is in a massive state of denial. What we've done is we have sanctioned the die-off of hundreds of species in our states. If I was an endangered specie, I would fire my lobbyists.

COLOPY: Darryl Young is the chief consultant to the California Senate's Natural Resources Committee. The new Endangered Species Act is meant to prevent any more critical habitat from being lost, but Mr. Young says one of its biggest flaws is that it does nothing to address the needs of species which are already in crisis. The revisions of the Act are aimed primarily at resolving the problem of incidental take, or harm to an endangered species from building, mining, farming, or logging in its habitat. The recent amendments spell out exactly how and when the state can issue permits for incidental take. They remove the legal cloud that's hung over builders since a court invalidated a host of permits earlier this year.

MANSON: These bills allow California to prosper in an economic sense and in an environmental sense.

COLOPY: Craig Manson is the chief counsel to the Department of Fish and Game, and he represented the Administration of Governor Pete Wilson during many months of negotiations with environmentalists and industry representatives. The Department of Fish and Game has begun drafting regulations that will require developers and farmers to compensate for any damage they do, for example, by transferring some land to the state for permanent habitat or trying to create habitat elsewhere. Craig Manson says critics who worry that these efforts won't be enough to stop the long-term decline of many species are reading the amendments too narrowly.

MANSON: These bills have safeguards for the protection of species while at the same time allowing agriculture and other economic activities to go forward. That's the way it's got to be in modern California.

COLOPY: A number of environmental groups are taking a similarly pragmatic view. The Sierra Club fought for stronger wildlife protections but failed. In the end it didn't endorse the legislation but also chose not to fight it. Sierra Club lobbyist Bill Craven says the legislation offers at least one major improvement: its provision for public review of permits to harm the habitat of endangered species.

CRAVEN: And that's where I think environmental groups are going to have a big role. I mean, it's our folks who know where these species live and who know where that habitat is, and who know if a proposed development is going to adversely affect those species.

COLOPY: Bill Craven says now that the thorny issue of incidental take has been resolved, environmentalists can concentrate on some of the law's weaknesses. He hopes to help craft new amendments to the Endangered Species Act to protect and expand habitat in order to foster recovery of some species. But others remain skeptical.

MUELLER: Do we want more K-Marts or do we want more bald eagles?

COLOPY: Tara Mueller of the Environmental Law Foundation says with the pressure of the permit logjam relieved, it's unlikely that law makers will be eager to consider further changes to the law. She says the legislation is a huge step backward because it expressly relieves everyone but the state of California of responsibility for helping restore the populations of endangered species.

MUELLER: I am concerned that it sets a very bad precedent for Federal ESA reauthorization, by endorsing a policy that private land owners, local governments have no responsibility to contribute to species recovery. And by letting a significant segment of society off the hook and not providing any funding to help the state meet its obligations, the species are the ones that will suffer.

COLOPY: Only time will tell whether California's new Endangered Species Act will help species recover or hasten their decline. But in the short term, supporters of the new law hope it will be seen as a positive precedent for the coming reauthorization of the Federal Endangered Species Act. For Living on Earth, I'm Cheryl Colopy.



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