Wilson Under Fire : Doing the Right Thing Brings No Satisfaction : Ecology: A four-inch songbird imperils the governor’s grand conservation plan and endangers his pro-environment image.

<i> William Fulton is editor of the Ventura-based California Planning & Development Report and author of "Guide to California Planning" (Solano Press Books)</i>

A four-inch songbird that biologists fear may be near extinction could place Gov. Pete Wilson’s pro-environment reputation on the politically endangered list. The fate of the California gnatcatcher will also reveal a lot about the direction of environmental politics in the ‘90s in Sacramento and Washington.

Listing the gnatcatcher as endangered, under either federal or state law, would halt development in a wide swath of Southern California. In trying to head off this scenario, Wilson is trying to do the right thing. But he’s hemmed in by the uncompromising nature of environmental laws and the emotional power of environmental issues. In the face of public controversy, he has stuck with a consensus-building approach that, if successful, ought to protect dozens of species, including the gnatcatcher. The plan could even become a national model for wildlife protection. But Wilson’s resolve has not come cheap.

Partly to salvage their longer-term conservation planning, Wilson’s people have wound up arguing, in the name of environmental protection, that the gnatcatcher shouldn’t be considered for an endangered listing under the state law. Given the politics of endangered species, this argument may be correct. But it has cost Wilson a lot of credibility with environmentalists. As a result, the governor may be unable to push through his conservation plan.

In short, Wilson is caught in the trap of endangered-species laws, which many experts call the “pit bulls” of environmental legislation. The gnatcatcher episode is likely to serve as a preview for next year’s congressional debate on renewing the federal Endangered Species Act.


Banking on the same strategy that yielded a change in federal wetlands policy earlier this year, industry lobbyists in Washington are collecting horror stories--the spotted owl, the Delta smelt, the gnatcatcher--with the aim of painting the environmental movement as pig-headed and uncompromising. The horror-story approach to wetlands policy generated a lot of support in Congress for an industry-sponsored bill, forcing the Bush Administration to back off its tough position on wetlands preservation.

But as Wilson quickly discovered in the case of the gnatcatcher, the environmentalist response to this kind of threat is not compromise. It is more artillery. On wetlands, the cross-fire from the artillery hurt the environmentalists badly. On endangered species, Wilson could get wounded instead.

The problem with both state and federal endangered-species laws is that they provide protection--extreme protection--for species only when it’s almost too late. Every time a condor egg hatches, it makes national news, but when thousands of other species lose ground--but aren’t yet endangered--nobody pays any attention. Experts acknowledge that their “species focus” is the greatest weakness of endangered-species laws. There is an emerging scientific consensus that a better approach is the use of broad-based, forward-looking conservation plans that can protect large areas of wildland before species ever become endangered.

The Wilson people have been working on this kind of a plan for the gnatcatcher’s habitat--coastal sage scrub--since last spring. As it happens, coastal sage scrub is a perfect match for such an approach. It covers large areas of Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties, and it contains not just the gnatcatcher but 30 or 40 other species that appear headed for the endangered list. Unless this conservation plan is put into place, these animals will come up for protection one-by-one, and the gnatcatcher controversy will be indefinitely repeated.


Wilson’s environmental advisers see the conservation plan for coastal sage scrub as a national model. If it’s successful, Congress might break the Endangered Species Act logjam next year by rewriting the law to encourage more conservation plans like Wilson’s. That would be a high-profile environmental victory for Wilson, who is consciously trying to build a national image.

Before the plan for coastal sage scrub could be completed, however, environmentalists forced the issue of the gnatcatcher. The Natural Resources Defense Council, which just opened a Southern California office, asked the state Fish & Game Commission to declare officially that the gnatcatcher was under consideration for listing as endangered. Such a declaration would have halted all new construction in the “growth belt” stretching across Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties.

Wilson’s people tried to negotiate a compromise between builders and environmentalists that would have allowed this step to be postponed while protecting the songbird. The builders signed on, but the environmentalists didn’t. NRDC lawyers are suspicious of the Wilson conservation plan because the Irvine Co. supports the idea, and they also point out--quite rightly--that the plan’s protections are not yet in place.

That put the governor in a tough spot--one that typifies the adversarial politics that endangered-species laws encourage. He either had to support the gnatcatcher’s listing and alienate the builders, or oppose the gnatcatcher’s listing and alienate the environmentalists. Wilson chose the latter.


Resources Undersecretary Michael Mantell was dispatched to a Fish & Game Commission meeting in Long Beach, where he asked that action on the gnatcatcher be postponed in order to give him the chance to finish the conservation plan. The commission, made up mostly of Deukmejian holdovers, duly agreed. The environmentalists jeered Mantell in the meeting room and then skewered Wilson on the evening news.

Mantell said he feared that if development were shut down, the conservation plan, designed to provide long-term certainty for both developers and environmentalists, would be lost in all the ruckus over the gnatcatcher--the result, once again, of laws with a single-species focus. It’s also true, of course, that the Irvine Co. and other Orange County land developers are important political supporters of the governor. And Wilson may have feared a backlash against wildlife protection in the Legislature--a California re-run of the wetlands issue, complete with a fresh “horror story” from Orange County.

It was a calculated risk, and the success of Wilson’s strategy depends heavily on the assumption that environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council are losing credibility on environmental issues. In fact, environmentalists did lose some credibility on the federal wetlands debate, when they held firm in the face of such stories as the declaration of lawns in suburban Houston as wetlands. That made the environmental position seem ridiculous to the average voter.

The Fish & Game Commission’s decision on the gnatcatcher issue didn’t get Wilson off the hook. A few days later, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposed adding the songbird to the federal endangered-species list. The agency’s final action won’t be taken until a year from now, but Fish & Wildlife rarely takes even this preliminary step unless its biologists think an animal is threatened with extinction.


Essentially, the federal action means that Wilson has a year to complete the conservation plan and persuade the public that he--rather than the NRDC--is acting in the best interests of the environment. It’s still a gamble.

If, over the course of the next year, the public begins to perceive the environmental position on endangered species as extreme, then Wilson’s risk will have been politically worthwhile. Right now, though, the environmental groups still have a lot of credibility--not just with the public, but especially with reporters, who typically give black hats to developers and white hats to environmentalists without thinking much about it.

Environmentalists may be narrowly focused and narrow-minded, but, for the moment at least, they’ve still got a kind of credibility with the public that the Irvine Co. doesn’t. And the truth is that you can’t pursue thoughtful, broad-based conservation planning, which the Wilson Administration is honestly trying to do, when the environmentalists are hooting at you.