2 December 2004
Bush proposal cuts critical habitat


The Bush administration wants to reduce by about 80% 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


2 December 2004
Administration gone fishing?

www.lompocrecord.com and www.santamariatiems.com

Once again, it appears the Bush administration is going to ignore the science of its own agencies when it comes to making crucial decisions about the environment.

Earlier this week, officials of the U.S. Marine Fisheries Service announced a proposal to reduce federal protection of salmon and steelhead trout by rolling back up to 90 percent of those creatures' critical habitat in western states.

This idea comes out of a lawsuit by a homebuilders' association, which asserts that federal rules protecting the salmon and steelhead habitat place an undue burden on commercial and residential development.

That much is probably true.

When land is designated as critical habitat, it severely restricts what kinds of activities can take place there.

But if environmentalists and wildlife experts are to be believed, removing that much land from critical habitat status all but dooms salmon and steelhead to extinction.

If the Bush administration plan moves forward - and there is some question that it will - a lot of land in this part of California could be affected, including acreage around stream beds at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The area affected by the administration's proposal stretches from Southern California to the Canadian border.

To understand just how out of touch this administration is with environmentalists' concerns, its official position is that dams do not pose a problem for salmon in their migrations to and from the ocean - a position that is, on its face, ridiculous.

The homebuilders' lawsuit argues that federal habitat rules don't give enough weight to economic problems caused by taking land out of practical use.

Environmentalists counter that the Bush administration has failed to factor in the potential economic benefits of rebuilding the salmon and steelhead trout populations.

Both sides in this issue make valid points, but it seems likely that nothing will happen, for a while at least.

Before the habitat designations are changed in either direction, there likely will be a small avalanche of lawsuits, which sadly is how environmental policy is developed these days.


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