"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Tuesday, May 03, 2005


A three-part series on "habitat conservation plans," the procedure by which private landowners are granted a license to "take" (i.e., kill) endangered species, begins today in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Authors Robert McClure and Lisa Stiffler are to be commended for what, so far, appears to be an exhaustive and well-researched collection of reports.

For those who are unfamiliar, "habitat conservation plans" (dig that Orwellian name!) allow private property owners to avoid strict compliance with the federal Endangered Species Act in return for certain promises:
Agencies entrusted to protect animals have allowed driving on Florida beaches where threatened sea turtles nest, the electrocution of rare birds on security fences at California prisons and the killing of protected salmon in one of southwest Washington's last undammed rivers.

These "habitat conservation plans" authorize developers, miners, loggers and others to "take" -- that is, harm, injure or kill -- creatures on the brink of extinction. Theoretically, the permit holder must do something good for the species to compensate for the bad.

The use of the word "take" here is interesting, because it parallels the use of the same word in a different - but inextricably related - context:
Proponents point out that something has to be done to allow some use of private property -- unless the government wants to pay a staggering sum to landowners due just compensation under the ["Takings Clause" of the] Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Plus, backers say, choking off all economic activity on lands inhabited by endangered species would cost too many jobs.

And there's the problem, in a nutshell - the conflict is generally described as logging jobs vs. the spotted owl, or affordable housing vs. the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly. But of course, things are never really that simple; often, the real conflict is commerce vs. commerce. Consider, for instance, this comment from Kristi Wrigley, identified as a "third-generation apple grower in Eureka, Calif., who says logging upstream by Pacific Lumber Co. flooded her land and ruined her grove:"
To me a habitat conservation plan is just a smoke screen to get out of responsibility for the Endangered Species Act -- a way of making an illusion that we're doing something good, when it's the opposite.

At the federal Fisheries Service, fish and river specialist Kale Gullett wrote in internal e-mails that it appeared that the plan's authors failed to see that the mining would be done in the [East Fork of the Lewis River's] floodplain. This mistake of "paramount importance" was bound to affect all subsequent analysis and decisions, he wrote.

All these objections were overruled. The federal agencies approved the plan last year -- prompting a legal challenge from environmental groups. Of 25 rivers feeding the Lower Columbia, the East Fork and the Sandy River east of Gresham, Ore., are the top two for salmon recovery, according to Washington's salmon-recovery plan.

That fact is what is driving one of the groups fighting the mining plan -- Fish First, founded by fishing-rod manufacturer Gary Loomis.

Sometimes, it all depends on whose ox is being gored - or, on what constitutes an externality.

And then there are those whose views change with time and circumstances:
When Curt Smitch led the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, he fought plans to expand gravel mining along the East Fork of the Lewis River -- a stream deemed crucial to salmon recovery in southwest Washington.

"Members of my staff ... recommended that no future expansion occur," Smitch wrote in 1991. The state's salmon runs are "extremely important ... and we are quite serious about protecting them."

Smitch lost that battle.

J.L. Storedahl and Sons cranked up its operation and wound up swallowing a half-mile stretch of the East Fork with mining pits -- environmental damage in Lewis County that is still evident today.

More than a decade later, as a consultant, Smitch helped the same company win approval for even more mining there.

In overcoming the objections of fishermen, scientists, conservationists and neighboring property owners, Smitch's connections proved invaluable.

He had worked at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one of two federal agencies that would sign off on a habitat conservation plan drafted by Storedahl. At the other, the National Marine Fisheries Service, a key official is a longtime friend.

Smitch also secured endorsements from then-Gov. Gary Locke -- Smitch's boss when he was the state's salmon-recovery coordinator -- as well as from U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. Joe King, a former speaker of the state House of Representatives, also helped Storedahl. All are Democrats.

The competing interests here are profound. No one is really in favor of extinction, per se, but then again no one wants the government telling them that they can't exploit their own land. Perhaps habitat conservation plans are a good compromise - but only if they can be made to stick. Because, you see, while the landowners are more or less completely protected from changed circumstances (and litigation) under the "no surprises" rule, commitments to environmental protection can be avoided simply by declaring bankruptcy.

In short, an excellent series for those interested in the science, politics, law, and economics of species preservation. The whole thing, including tomorrow and Thursday's installments, can be found here. It's well worth your time.




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