Tuesday, February 22, 2005

CTS Team may not deliver for developers/PD says Open Space District should buy habitat

Sure enough, the Press Democrat wants the taxpayers to pay an estimated $400 million to preserve California Tiger Salamander habitat, so developers can continue to build in the Santa Rosa Plain. The second part of a two-day editorial Monday recommended the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation & Open Space District at least buy land to compensate for habitat lost to public projects:

"Get the Open Space District involved. It also would make no sense to have two massive efforts to preserve open space in Sonoma County--the district and the tiger salamander habitat preservation effort--going on without some overlap. At the least, officials should look at how they might use open space resources to help necessary public projects--the building of fire stations, parks, schools, etc.--meet any tiger salamander mitigation requirements that may be required."

As expected, the PD also proposed to treat existing dairy pastures as mitigation areas: "Consider allowing dairy lands for mitigation banking. If the science shows that tiger salamanders are thriving on dairy lands, it makes no sense to rule them out as potential habitat." (2/21/05, "Slippery slope, Part II: What's needed to ensure salamander protections work")

But the editor was wrong to compare the developer-driven Santa Rosa Plain Conservation Strategy Team to the taxpayer-funded Open Space District. The Team's task was to find a way for developers to build on CTS habitat, not to preserve open space; and the amount recommended for preservation is by no means "massive".

Nor did the editor claim "science shows" salamanders are thriving under the hooves of dairy cattle. He just implied that "science" might.

Drawing on a PD story the week before, the editorial said, "Under the plan being considered, anyone who has property within 1.3 miles of a known breeding pond--of which there are about 40 in an area centered mostly in southwest Santa Rosa--would be allowed to build only after they mitigate at a 2-1 ratio. This means that if a child care center wants to build on 10 acres of land in this area, it first would need to pay for 20 acres of tiger salamander habitat somewhere else at a cost of around $100,000 an acre."

There's that editorial spin again. It would be more accurate to say that anyone who wants to build near CTS breeding ponds would have to preserve twice as much suitable habitat elsewhere. And that $100,000/acre cost is no more than an estimate the PD quoted in the previous story:

"The $400 million is a preliminary figure based on a plan to set aside 4,000 acres around seasonal ponds where salamanders breed. The calculation is based on a cost of $100,000 an acre to not only buy and prepare the land, but also set up an endowment to maintain it and monitor the salamanders."

"[It] is based on a private analysis prepared by Wildlands Inc., a Rocklin-based company that specializes in developing habitat for plants and animals threatened by development. Greg Lyman, who manages Wildlands' East Bay office, described the $400 million estimate as 'crude,' but said it could increase along with land prices." (2/14/05, "Saving salamander could cost $400 million/Coalition pegs price of buying 4,000 acres of Sonoma County land to be set aside for habitat")

The editorial also said, "The plan needs to be flexible. As an example of this, we refer to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision last week to waive a requirement that the Bellevue school district be required to pay $900,000 in mitigation costs to build a new school.

We still don't understand how Fish and Wildlife cleared the school, but then again, we don't understand why the service was going to require the district to prove the site was salamander-free in the first place. It is far from any known habitat areas.

The PD printed three news stories, an op-ed piece, and three editorials about the salamander and the Bellevue school district, and the editor still didn't understand what happened. But he seems to like the Fish & Wildlife bureaucrats when they're "flexible" enough to do what he wants.

Most of all, the PD wants the CTS off the endangered species list:

"Develop a clear plan for how to determine when the tiger salamander has recovered. The Endangered Species Act is a great tool for getting animals listed, but it's track record for recovery is spotty. Since 1973, only 25 species out of hundreds have ever been 'delisted.' Seven were removed because they are extinct. Seven have been taken off because they have recovered, primarily because of the banning of DDT. But the rest have gone off because the numbers show they shouldn't have been included in the first place."

The editor probably meant to imply the California Tiger Salamander should not have been listed in the first place. But as he says himself, only seven "out of hundreds" of species listed under the Endangered Species Act have recovered--and seven other species no longer exist.

The developers' spin in the 2/14 news story was contradictory. A spokeswoman said, in effect, developers must destroy its habitat to save the CTS: "'Without development occurring, we won't be able to purchase lands to save the salamander. They won't survive in their current habitat,' said Carolyn Wasem, a member of the conservation strategy team who represents property owners. [According to the City's website, Wasem is not, in fact, a Team member]

Another spokesman said it couldn't be done: "Mark Kelley, a consultant for the development community on the salamander issue, said the $400 million plan is financially impossible. 'If you look at the burden it puts on each acre of land for the home developer, it makes it completely impractical to borrow money for construction' "

Team member Keith Kaulum, from the Sierra Club, had a simple answer:

"'There's nothing in this world that requires that you build homes in that area. If it's not economical, you build them someplace else,' he said. 'There are other places to build houses in the Bay Area.' "


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