BEC to sue feds over habitat flip-flop

The Butte Environmental Council, momentarily stunned by the Department of the Interior’s last-minute erasure of Butte County wetlands from critical habitat designation, has risen from the mat, intent on taking it up in court.

On Aug. 22, BEC’s attorneys sent a letter notifying the leaders of the DOI and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the agencies will be the targets of a lawsuit to be filed in federal district court within 60 days.

The critical habitat designation would have added another layer of protection for 11 vernal pool plants and four fairy shrimp species and culminated a battle that started when BEC sued in 2000 to force the USFWS to come up with the plan. Under court order, the service’s scientists got to work, and three years and several public workshops later, they had mapped out 1.7 million acres in California and Southern Oregon—including 69,000 in Butte County—identified as critical habitat for various plants and crustaceans residing in vernal pool ecosystems.

But the DOI has the final say over USFWS, and Assistant Secretary of the Interior Craig Manson decided that the designation would result in the counties of Butte, Madera, Merced, Sacramento and Riverside losing $1.3 billion over 20 years by adding costs to development projects. They didn’t question that the species were there and worthy of protection; just whether they were important enough to override human economic interests.

When the designation was filed with the Federal Register Aug. 6, it included only 740,000 acres. Butte was left out completely, as was much of Glenn County. Since Butte land wasn’t designated, neither was an entire species: Butte County Meadowfoam.

In its suit, in which Defenders of Wildlife is also a plaintiff, BEC will take issue with the economic study the DOI used to justify the exclusion of the land. “Their economic analysis is terribly weak,” said Barbara Vlamis, executive director of BEC. The move has the Bush administration written all over it, and, she said, the political play is “so disingenuous an eighth grader could see through it.”

Also, the USFWS has long had a policy contending that critical habitat distinction is not that big of a deal anyway since it would not place any additional barriers on farmers and other landowners; it would just map out already-protected lands so development restrictions would be known in advance. “The contradiction is very interesting,” Vlamis said.

Vlamis said the analysis didn’t take into account the money that protecting the land could potentially bring in the form of ecotourism and nondestructive uses such as cattle grazing. “We’ve had people from the Bay Area come up to go on vernal pool tours,” she said. “That’s all motel stays and restaurant meals.”

Regional USFWS Spokesman Jim Nickles declined to comment on the planned suit. “We haven’t seen the notice,” he said, but as for being sued, “We sort of expected it.”

DOI Spokesman Hugh Vickery said his frequently sued department does not comment on pending litigation, but, “We wouldn’t put something out there if we didn’t believe it was right.”

Vlamis said the DOI’s decision has drawn sympathy and about $200 from some unexpected sources, including a donor from Redwood City who heard about it in the news. BEC hopes to raise $5,000 to help cover court costs.