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A Decent Alternative in Preserving Species : Shift From Case-by-Case Listing Benefits Everyone

Dealings between environmentalists and developers have been much more often characterized by conflict than agreement in recent years. Nowhere has that been truer than in Orange County’s environmental wars over the fate of the gnatcatcher, a tiny songbird that has flown squarely into the forefront of some major land-use battles in recent years.

Now a constructive experiment in species preservation in which the gnatcatcher plays a supporting role is winding toward its implementation in Orange County. Not everybody is thrilled with the plan being worked out, but it’s the best we have and deserves a chance to prove its worth.

The product is the result of the state Resources Agency’s effort to take a different approach to protecting species, the concept of habitat preservation as an alternative to listing on a case-by-case basis.

The argument behind this strategy is that everybody benefits: That is, developers know up front what land they can develop without facing interminable challenges on environmental issues that may be thrown up as a last resort by opponents of a project, and environmentalists get the benefit of a broad set-aside where rare plants and animals can be assured of survival.

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The underlying premise that contending parties can work together is worth trying as an alternative to perpetual conflict in the courts. In the past, there has been unhappiness on both sides, and a move to find a better way was overdue.

Developers contended they would suffer dire economic consequences and endless red tape if the species-by-species approach continued. And others, such as the Nature Conservancy, a leader in open space preservation, were concerned about the loss of species without the kind of moratorium that reserving open space represented.

For several years, representatives of the state and federal governments, environmentalists, wildlife biologists, the Irvine Co., and others have been sketching out the designation of 39,000 acres in central and coastal Orange County as reserves for rare plants and animals.

This program was launched in 1991 by Gov. Pete Wilson, and it has enjoyed favorable review on the national level as a model of sensible land-use planning. The Orange County designation is the first of two county plans to be made public, with specific emphasis on the much-publicized gnatcatcher.

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There are some things to be worked out and there are questions about whether the approach will prove to be an environmental boon after all. Some conservationists and scientists are doubtful about aspects of the plan, and in particular, whether there is a need for more scientific review. Some, such as Dennis Murphy, director of Stanford University’s Center for Conservation Biology and a designer of the project, argue that good science can be done and that it will bring about laudable land-use decisions.

This might not keep anyone entirely happy, but fresh ideas for resolving the conflicts between developers and environmentalists are not exactly in abundant supply. This is the best major alternative now on the table for consideration, and it may be the best hope politically for focusing attention on species preservation in the years to come.


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