Paper exercise or real progress?

 

In words typical of claims by environmental organizations, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recently trumpeted “a big step forward for polar bear protection” when the Bush Administration agreed to designate critical habitat for the Polar Bear as part of a settlement with the group and its allies (Nature’s Voice, Jan/Feb 2009).  Based on my experience with critical habitat designated for the Coho salmon, however, my guess is that the designation will not make much difference in what actually takes place on the ground.

A final critical habitat designation for Central California Coast and Southern Oregon/Northern California Coasts Coho salmon was published by the National Marine Fisheries Service (MNFS) on May 5, 1999. NMFS first proposed protection not only for the beds, banks and waters of Coho streams but also for riparian areas sized in accordance with the Aquatic Conservation Strategy (ACS) for public land adopted a few years before as part of the Northwest Forest Plan. But the loud outcry from timber, agriculture, development interests and local governments resulted in changes.  The final designation included the extent of riparian vegetation associated with Coho streams. In this region that is generally far less than the “site tree length” definition of riparian zones found in the ACS.      

Ten years have passed since the critical habitat designation. During that time I have personally observed numerous instances of adverse modification of critical Coho habitat. In Northwest California, county bureaucrats have allowed houses to be built next to Coho streams, farmers have cleared riparian vegetation from stream sides, ranchers have allowed livestock to trample stream banks and foul streams, and timber companies have continued to log on steep, unstable slopes prone to delivering massive amounts of sediments to streams when big storms follow clear cuts. The adverse modification of Coho critical habitat is widespread in Northwest California. Even some county road crews continue to dispose of silt from cut-bank failures and ditches in riparian zones where high water can wash the habitat destroying silt into streams.  

The listing of Coho pursuant to the ESA has led to better logging rules in those parts of California where Coho survive. It appears, however, that the more protective rules are the result of the ESA’s prohibition on “take” and not on the critical habitat designation. Furthermore, NMFS is on record that the new logging rules are not adequate to protect Coho. Road maintenance and clear cutting on steep slopes are practices which continue to degrade and destroy Coho habitat.

Is the failure of critical habitat designation to deliver promised benefits to Coho in Northwest California an aberration? Could critical habitat designation help Coho if we had activists and lawyers here willing to force critical habitat protection through complaints and lawsuits?  Or is critical habitat designation a “paper tiger” which the environmental establishment and opponents of the ESA collude to promote as important when it changes little or nothing on the ground?

I would like to hear from GOAT/HCN’s readers on this subject. Over the past 25 years there have been hundreds of species listed in the West and critical habitat has been designated (albeit usually reluctantly) for many of them. What have you, the readers, observed?  Has critical habitat designation made a difference for these species or is it the “paper tiger” I’ve found it to be in Northwest California? 

Please share your observations on the subject below or e-mail your observations to unofelice@gmail.com.

Good question
Ray Ring
Ray Ring
Mar 17, 2009 09:49 AM
My view is similar to yours -- often a critical habitat designation doesn't seem as crucial on the ground as the combatants portray it. -- Ray in Bozeman for HCN
critical habitat
Tony Davis
Tony Davis
Mar 17, 2009 09:32 PM
Critical habitat
Dan Rohlf
Dan Rohlf
Mar 19, 2009 02:38 PM
Critical habitat under the ESA raised lots of complicated legal, factual, and policy issues, but there are a couple of especially important things to understand. First, the ESA's prohibition against destroying or adversely modifying critical habitat applies only to federal agencies, so all of the activities the article describes which are being carried out by non-federal entities are simply not subject to the ESA's provisions protecting critical habitat. Second, FWS and NMFS have for years attempted to water down protections for critical habitat. However, after a Ninth Circuit court decision in 2004, it is clear that critical habitat protects species recovery -- at least when federal actions are involved. Agencies are still attempting to find ways around this result, however, so it will take additional judicial clarifications of the ESA's ban against destroying or adversely modifying critical habitat to allow this prohibition to achieve its full potential. Finally, there is empirical evidence that species with designated critical habitat are generally in better shape than those without; see Taylor, et al., The Effectiveness of the ESA: A Quantitative Analysis, 55 BioScience 360 (2005).