Feds chalk up for vernal pool plan

Over the past century, Californians’ lust for land has swallowed up as much as 90 percent of the tiny ecosystems known as vernal pools. Now, environmentalists have federal agencies on board preserving what’s left.

But the seemingly vast swash of pink across the map of the Central Valley unnerved several farmers at an Oct. 3 public meeting. They worried that establishing critical habitat for 15 endangered plants and crustaceans could squelch private property rights.

The event at the Chico Elks Lodge was one of several regional meetings leading up to a public-comment period and hearings about the proposed designation of 1.7 million acres, including 69,000 in Butte County.

Biologist Cay Goude, representing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, repeatedly assured the farmers that they have nothing to fear—unless they want to morph into developers. “It only affects you if you convert to urban uses” that require federal permits, she said. And then, “critical habitat doesn’t add any additional burden to what you would normally have to do because of these species.”

The rules would be the same as far as seeking permission to “fill” wetlands.

While the FWS presenters spoke fondly of species including Butte County meadowfoam and vernal-pool fairy shrimp, they also acknowledged what led them to this meeting: a court-ordered settlement.

Butte Environmental Council Executive Director Barbara Vlamis said later that much of the good of the designation lies in the fact that it informs people “that there is something of value here.”

Goude hinted at a bit of irony that drew grins from those who worked on a local habitat resource conservation plan back in the early 1990s. The HRCP, which was ultimately junked by a developer-lobbied City Council majority, would have protected some parts of Chico while allowing building to proceed on agreed-upon areas that hosted endangered species. But the draft plan lives on in the minds of officials from federal agencies, which are now making no apologies that the burden of proof falls on property owners when determining if their land is on critical habitat.

"All of a sudden, if you don’t complain [that the map is wrong] it’s a fact," said one landowner. "We’ve got 60 days to protect private property rights."