CON: A housing development that’s a tragedy for condors

by Noel Snyder and David Clendenen

In recent weeks, several high-profile environmental organizations have been celebrating a deal they call “perhaps the greatest victory for conservation that many of us will see in our lifetime." If only this were true. Sadly, it is not; the deal in question represents a major setback for conservation.

The "deal" does result in permanent preservation of substantial amounts of open space on California’s Tejon Ranch, but it also involves the creation of a major housing development of thousands of dwellings in the heart of critical habitat for the endangered California condor.

If built, Tejon Mountain Village will pose a significant threat to the recovery of this highly revered species. That any environmental organization might agree to such consequences is alarming and raises troubling questions about how the agreement was reached.

Critical habitat is the highest level of federal protection given to areas that are indispensable for endangered species. It is designed to prevent significant degradation of these areas. Critical habitat for condors was established on the Tejon Ranch in 1976, because the lands in question were crucial for foraging and roosting.

After a close brush with extinction, the recovering condor population is once again using this critical habitat on Tejon, but it’s doubtful that full recovery of the species can be achieved in its historic range if significant degradation of the Tejon lands is allowed. This conclusion is not new: It has been stated in innumerable documents and official remarks of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game over the years.

Condors are sensitive to both direct and indirect threats from human activities. Historically the huge birds have avoided urban and suburban areas. A major housing development in the remote heart of one of their most important use areas is exactly the sort of degradation that critical habitat was designed to prevent. It simply should not be permitted under any circumstances.

Incredibly, private environmental organizations with no authority over -- and little experience in -- condor management issues have now endorsed a deal that would allow the residential development of condor critical habitat on Tejon. The Tejon deal was based on negotiations openly described as secret, from which virtually all experienced condor experts were excluded. Further, the deal’s negative impacts for condors have not yet been disclosed to the public. This is the worst sort of deal-making imaginable, particularly for an extremely rare species that has become a public trust.

Many of the lands sacrificed in this agreement are of irreplaceable value to condor conservation, while many of the lands slated for protection have not normally been used by condors and likely will never be of importance to condors. Furthermore, many of the protected lands would likely never be developed for housing because of steep terrain and other practical problems.

Unfortunately, in their eagerness to protect open space, a few well-meaning organizations have become parties to a major threat to the future of the condor. In effect, the condor is being asked to pay for protection of undeveloped lands of much less critical importance than the lands being sacrificed. This represents a huge net loss for conservation, not a benefit, and is no cause for celebration. Nothing in the announced agreement comes close to compensating for the losses involved.

Critical habitat designation has the force of law and deserves the respect and support of all, including landowners, governmental agencies and environmental organizations. If these plans are implemented, they would set a precedent for disregarding critical habitat protection for other endangered species, a precedent with far-reaching and potentially disastrous consequences.

Allowing Tejon Mountain Village to be built in critical habitat for condors represents a victory only for trophy-home development. As former participants in the condor-conservation program, we know of no evidence to support claims that these plans are generally endorsed by “condor experts.” Aside from a few individuals paid by Tejon, not one experienced condor biologist of our acquaintance believes that these plans are anything other than a major mistake. Our opposition here represents the consensus of a dozen condor biologists with long-term experience in the condor conservation program. We believe that preservation of critical habitat on the Tejon Ranch is essential for conservation of the condor, and that recovery of the species would be jeopardized by the proposed housing development.

The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). Both men are biologists who studied condors for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and both were members of the government’s Condor Recovery team. Noel Snyder lives in Portal, Arizona, and David Clendenen lives in Maricopa, California.

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