Wilson Makes Offer to Environmentalists
Fearing that development in much of California will be blocked by a recent appellate court decision, the Wilson administration is trying to persuade environmentalists who won the legal victory to restore the state’s power to allow landowners to harm endangered animals and plants.
But the environmentalists say the administration is giving up little in its settlement offer because it is only agreeing to drop a program already invalidated by the appeals court.
Under the unusual settlement offer, state officials would abandon a controversial provision, ordered by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1995, that granted a blanket waiver of the state Endangered Species Act for projects that might prevent or repair damage from floods, fires, earthquakes or other disasters.
In return, 13 environmental groups would have to agree to ask the court to rescind its decision and reestablish the state’s power to permit landowners to harm endangered animals and plants for nonemergency projects.
Two weeks ago, the California Court of Appeal in San Francisco reaffirmed a ruling that Wilson violated the Endangered Species Act in 1995 when he issued the emergency waiver. The court decided that the waiver, which was still in effect, was too broad and could be used to “authorize ongoing, day-to-day activities.”
But the Wilson administration complained that the appeals court went a major step further--by concluding that the Department of Fish and Game has been violating the Endangered Species Act when it grants nearly all its other permits.
Those permits have allowed developers and public agencies to undertake projects that kill or damage endangered species as long as they offset the damage by setting aside other habitat or taking other conservation steps. The court said the permits exceed the state’s authority under the law, which allows the damage only for scientific, educational or resource management reasons.
Until now, the permits have authorized such projects as business parks, housing, landfills, roads, mines and utility lines. About 180 permits have been issued by the Fish and Game Department since 1989, and 40 others are pending, state officials say.
Developers say the ruling could bring building to a halt in much of the state, especially in Southern California, which is home to many endangered birds and other creatures. Since the court’s decision, the state has suspended granting the permits.
In a letter sent to 13 environmental groups, state Deputy Atty. Gen. Linus Masouredis offered to drop the emergency waiver and pay their attorneys’ fees, forgoing any further appeals. In return, all 13 groups would have to ask the court by May 10 to rescind its decision extending to the other permits.
Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the settlement offer will be considered but is unlikely to be accepted.
“I don’t think there is much to recommend this settlement,” Reynolds said. “I think it’s a political game.”
Attorneys on both sides disagree over the scope of the ruling. Masouredis said it could invalidate all previous permits issued to landowners. But Reynolds said only future permits are threatened, although that “certainly puts a cloud” over the state’s authority.