Bush proposal 80% critical habitat cut will help developers, military

Definitely should be included in all comments regarding weapons systems development. -sheila


Bush proposal cuts critical habitat



The Bush administration wants to reduce by about 80 percent areas previously considered habitat critical to the recovery of threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead trout, including land on Vandenberg Air Force Base.

In a move that would largely undo safeguards adopted by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2000, the administration proposed Tuesday to limit critical habitat protections to rivers and streams where those fish now thrive, not other areas where they once were prevalent.

Excluded from the new designation locally -- in addition to several miles of waterways on the military base -- are some tributaries of the Santa Ynez River, portions of the Santa Maria River on the base and certain streams in the Cuyama area, a federal official said Wednesday. The main channels of both North County rivers would be designated as critical, he added, except where they cross Vandenberg lands.

Environmentalists blasted the proposals as a huge setback to a 15-year effort to restore salmon and steelhead trout to thousands of miles of streams in California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

In response to a builders association lawsuit and related court rulings, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration agreed to reconsider critical habitat designations adopted in 2000 for 13 groups of salmon in the Northwest and seven in California that were listed as threatened or endangered.

Four years ago, the Marine Fisheries Service based its designations on the standard that critical habitat should provide for recovery, not just survival of a species -- and included rivers and streams accessible to salmon, even if no fish occupied them.

The new proposals, which more narrowly interpret the federal Endangered Species Act, will be the subject of public comments during the next six months before being made final next summer, officials said.

They were praised by the National Association of Home Builders, which sued the government and has been chafing under the costs of getting federal permits for development in wetlands. Courts have also said in a series of decisions in recent years that the federal
government must consider the economic cost of designating critical habitat.

Michael Mittelholzer, the builders association's director of environmental policy, praised the administration's approach for "trying to minimize the impact on industry in areas where there are low values to species and high economic costs."

The Marine Fisheries Service's critical habitat designations were withdrawn in 2002 after the association's lawsuit challenged an analysis finding no significant economic effects from those protections.

A local environmental spokesman asserted, however, that the new proposals emphasize costs while ignoring the benefits that critical habitat designations provide.

"Those analyses, in our view, are kind of cooked," said John Buse, senior staff attorney for the Environmental Defense Center of Santa Barbara. "They consider the costs but not the benefits."

He contended such designations are needed in more areas to protect the fish species in question. "I think the proposed deletion of that much important habitat is a setback to the steelhead recovery effort."

A new economic analysis found salmon protections cost the Northwest economy about $223 million a year, with no significant economic benefits. The figure for California was not immediately available.

Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations said the economic analysis failed to take into account the economic benefits of a commercial fishing industry once worth $1 billion a year.

NOAA officials said the areas of critical habitat shrank through the use of maps with finer detail and by limiting the designation to good habitat actually occupied by salmon.

"It's a different-looking designation than the one we had in 2000, which was very general and vague," Craig Wingert, supervising fisheries biologist for NOAA's regional office in Long Beach, said Wednesday.

National security concerns, he added, weighed in the decision to exclude some military bases -- principally Vandenberg and Camp Pendleton in San Diego County -- from the designations.

Vandenberg officials could not be reached for comment.

This story includes reports from The Associated Press.
E-mail: cschultz@newspress.com

Informant: shebikes4


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Dezember 2004

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