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Property Rights Ensured in New Species Protection Policy

From Associated Press

The Interior Department, hoping to defuse some of the criticism of the Endangered Species Act, assured landowners Thursday their property won’t be placed at further risk if they agree to a formal species protection plan.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said he hoped the new policy will show that the federal law protecting endangered animal and plant species is flexible and should be supported.

Congress has been debating whether to drastically rewrite the law, arguing that too often it protects species at the severe economic and social expense of human beings. The law has also become the focus of a campaign to protect property rights against government intrusion.

The Interior Department announced a new policy that any private party or group agreeing to protect endangered species through a Habitat Conservation Plan will be assured no additional property will be taken or costs incurred through the life of the plan.

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“We’re telling landowners that a deal is a deal,” Babbitt said at a news conference.

He has been a strong proponent of dealing with endangered species issues by entering into agreements with private parties for broad protection of a species habitat, instead of protecting species individually wherever they are found.

The department has been negotiating more than 130 so-called Habitat Conservation Plans around the country. Often a stumbling block in negotiations is the fear that the government will make new demands if the species continues in danger--after an agreement has been made, officials said.

It will affect the habitat of the California gnatcatcher and other species. Coastal sage scrub, the songbird’s habitat, is found in Orange, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego and Riverside counties. Some development projects have been delayed for years because they would encroach on the bird’s habitat.

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Defenders of Wildlife, a national conservation organization that has proposed both legal improvements and economic incentives under the Endangered Species Act, voiced strong concerns about the new policy.

Defenders President Rodger Schlickeisen said, “We understand the desire of developers to reach binding agreements on species protection, and the need to cautiously test new approaches. At the same time, however, if we give developers long-term deals on species’ plans, then we should also give wildlife an extra margin of error.” He warned that “because conservation biology is not yet an exact science, it is wise to be safe rather than sorry when drafting species plans.”

Although environmental groups have not yet been briefed on the new habitat proposal, Defenders Wildlife Counsel William Snape found Thursday’s policy announcement vague in several key respects. “Not only is it unclear what ‘extraordinary circumstances’ will require future mitigation by developers, but the very nature of such ‘mitigation,’ and who will pay, is not yet defined,” Snape said.

Defenders has been a leader in promoting economic incentives for private landowners under the U.S. Endangered Species Act through a recent report and congressional testimony. On July 27, senior representatives of the environmental community and the private sector met in Newport Beach to explore options for incorporating economic incentives into the California Endangered Species Act. The meeting, which was hosted by the Irvine Co. and jointly organized by Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society, was attended by various developers.

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The Interior Department’s new policy will provide legal assurance that the government will seek no additional land, or make any additional financial demands on the parties in the formal conservation plan for the life of the program.

Habitat Conservation Plan agreements can vary in length, but often run 20 to 30 years, officials said. The agreement normally calls on private parties to set aside areas for protection. In return, the government will allow commercial development of other areas.

During the life of a Habitat Conservation Plan, Babbitt said, the government still will have available a variety of mitigation techniques to assure that a species is not irreparably harmed.


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