Voluntary Gnatcatcher Program Draws Fire

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gov. Pete Wilson's program to persuade landowners and local governments to voluntarily protect the California gnatcatcher has come under increased attack by an environmental coalition, which charged Friday that the effort has been so weakened by developers that it is doomed.

Dan Silver, an environmentalist who serves on the governor's steering committee for the 6-month-old program, called it "a recipe for delay and failure" in a letter sent to Douglas Wheeler, California resources secretary.

"The system devised by the Resources Agency is simply the longstanding and preferred agenda of Orange County mega-landowners, who have strongly influenced the process from the beginning," Silver's five-page report said. He wrote that the program has been "reduced to little more than a tactic to delay" listing the gnatcatcher as endangered.

Officials with the state Resources Agency said Friday that they are trying to balance the concerns of all sides in Southern California--developers, municipal and county governments and environmentalists--in an effort to protect coastal sage scrub. The scrub, found mostly in San Diego, Orange and western Riverside counties, is habitat for the gnatcatcher, a small blue-gray songbird, along with about 35 other rare species.

"We're trying to develop workable public policy that works for environmental protection and allows for some development," said Carol Whiteside, assistant secretary of resources. "What that means is the people who want zero development or unlimited development will never be happy."

Laer Pearce, a spokesman for San Diego and Orange County developers, also said Silver has "absolutist views" and won't compromise. Pearce said the voluntary program has made significant progress, and that developers as well as local governments that sign up will make major sacrifices to protect the bird.

"Obviously, we want this to work, or we will be looking down the throat of a federal (endangered species) listing," he said.

Silver, coordinator of the Endangered Habitats League, a coalition of more than 30 environmental organizations, said he has no plans to drop off the committee, but he is urging Wheeler to seek state and federal listing of the bird.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group, already dropped off the governor's committee last month, saying that a lack of interim protections is threatening the gnatcatcher's survival.

The Wilson Administration in August persuaded the California Fish and Game Commission to deny state endangered species protection for the bird because of the new effort to obtain voluntary agreements from developers and local governments.

The program, called Natural Community Conservation Planning, or NCCP, was proposed by the Irvine Co. and became part of Wilson's plan to protect the environment.

In addressing the wildlife commission last fall, Undersecretary of Resources Michael Mantell said developers and cities would sign agreements within a few months to conserve blocks of land, and that interim controls would be initiated to protect the bird. After six months, no private landowners or local governments have signed the agreements, and no protection measures are in place.

Last week, the Resources Agency began circulating enrollment forms to local governments and developers. Whiteside said she expects county governments and cities throughout the three counties and some major landowners to sign them within a few weeks.

Silver said the terms in the agreement forms have been weakened considerably.

A draft of the form in late February required local governments that sign up to deny permits for development projects that result in significant, unmitigated loss of coastal sage scrub. The final draft, however, dated March 9, shows the cities or counties have to assess the impact on habitat but don't have to deny the permits.

Also, in an earlier version of the agreement forms, local governments would require developments to get the approval of state and federal wildlife biologists, while the final forms only require them to "strongly consider" the advice.

Silver said he is willing to compromise, but that such changes transformed the program from a good-faith effort into a series of "ifs and maybes."

"This program is a joke," Silver said in an interview. "They (developers) basically watered everything down so that they don't commit to doing anything. . . . What Pete Wilson is going to get is a flop. They have designed the program to fail."

Whiteside, a former mayor of Modesto, defended the changes, saying the program was not intended to be a moratorium on development of the habitat. She said changes were made in the agreement forms mostly because city and county officials said they were unworkable.

"If we make the forms too restrictive, local government would not be able to buy into it," she said. "As a former mayor, I tend to be real sensitive to these things."

Whiteside said developers would only agree to set aside land that they didn't intend to build on anyway, and that is why the participation of local governments is the most critical part of the program.

"This will bring a much higher level of review and protection. . . . They (cities and counties) are taking a great step forward in a new arena. People are swallowing hard before they sign on, because a lot of them see this as new regulatory authority that their constituents won't like," she said.

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