SAN DIEGO COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : A Gnatcatcher's Harried Habitat

The California gnatcatcher, like the spotted owl, has become a national symbol for the battle between developers and environmentalists over jobs, growth and the preservation of species. And after months of raging debate over how to preserve the tiny songbird, the outcome, unfortunately, remains uncertain.

The gnatcatcher has not been able to fly free of national and state politics, legal squabbling and the state's budget crisis. That's too bad given all the work the state Resources Agency has done to build a consensus between developers and environmentalists, especially in Orange and San Diego counties. The timing of the state budget cuts and the political considerations of this election year sprang up as roadblocks.

At various times during the past year, it looked as if California had a national model for engaging developers and environmentalists in a broad-based plan. Indeed, even after the state budget ax had cut heavily into the state's vaunted program, President Bush was on the stump this week hailing it.

If the plan to set aside tracts from development doesn't work, everybody will lose. Things look more perilous now because only 25% of the expected state funding came through, and state and county officials acknowledge that they have a tough row to hoe. Indeed, some Orange County officials are questioning whether the Wilson Administration was serious about its program in the first place.

The painful budget cut was followed by an Interior Department acknowledgment this week that it likely will extend the deadline for a decision on endangered species status until after the election. That, coupled with dissatisfaction with the state Fish and Game Commission's handling of the issue at the state level, has eroded trust.

The state effort is not dead in the water. But its credibility took a few broadsides earlier and the latest round has the program reeling again. And now that President Bush has turned up the heat on the Endangered Species Act by charging that it costs jobs, a very good state alternative may unfortunately be caught in a bind.

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