Habitat Conservation Plans: Who wins and who loses when Uncle Sam cuts deals with landowners to protect endangered species?

  • Endangered: The salt marsh harvest mouse

    B. Moose Peterson/WRP
  • Palos Verde blue butterfly

    B. Moose Peterson/WRP
  • Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard

    B. Moose Peterson/WRP
  • Least Bells' vireo

    B. Moose Peterson/WRP
  • San Diego horned lizard

    B. Moose Peterson/WRP
  • Owens pupfish

    B. Moose Peterson/WRP
  • California gnatcatcher

    B. Moose Peterson/WRP
  Who hasn't returned after many years to a favorite childhood haunt, a farm, a woodlands or even a weedy vacant lot, only to find it gone - paved over with roads, dotted with houses or leveled for a shopping mall?


Such a sight may have shocked us once, but as with any type of violence, repetition numbs the senses. We have come to expect the loss of landscape. We assume virtually every acre of private land in the country will eventually be altered for human purposes. Day by day, America becomes more like Europe, a developed land with a few remnant, though tamed, natural environments.


As the land changes, so do its animals and plants. Species that love disturbance thrive, while the ones that need privacy and large tracts of undisturbed habitat hang on by a thread or perish.


Most of us accept the loss because we accept the idea that has led to it: The right to own and develop property is as basic and unassailable as the right to vote or attend or not attend a church.


But not everyone accepts the ecological decline caused by the exercise of private property rights. Some organizations fight it by embracing the system, buying up still-undeveloped private lands. Others focus on the public domain, working to save chunks of the land as wilderness, parks and wildlife refuges.


There isn't enough money in the world to buy up more than a few critical patches of habitat. And the public lands, even if they were to be managed exclusively for biological diversity, can't carry the whole load. Habitat provided by the privately held valleys is essential to the health of the higher-elevation public lands.


That's where Habitat Conservation Plans come in. They are the latest, and for some the most hopeful, attempt to balance property rights and land protection for rare and endangered species.


Habitat Conservation Plans are not new. They are a 1982 addition to that most powerful environmental law, the 1972 Endangered Species Act, which prohibits the "take," either directly by killing or indirectly through habitat destruction, of an endangered species, wherever it lives.


Yet the government has seldom wielded the act as a weapon against private property owners. Though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has convicted people for illegally killing bald eagles, grizzly bears and other high-profile species, it has rarely enforced the law's prohibition of the destruction of habitat (see page 14).


Because of the unwillingness of every administration to go after landowners - or perhaps, more accurately, to enforce strict prohibitions in the law - Congress amended the ESA in 1982, giving the agencies the Habitat Conservation Plan as a tool for private-land conservation.


Jon Margolis writes (above) that HCPs are long-term deals between landowners and the federal government. They allow a landowner to move forward with development projects that will "take" an endangered species in exchange for some conservation commitments, such as the setting aside of some habitat. The landowners get immunity from the law, sometimes for as long as 100 years.


Between 1982 and 1992, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved just 14 HCPs throughout the country. Then the Clinton administration came to Washington looking for a way to work with corporations and other large landowners while still attaining some conservation goals.


The HCP pot was sweetened for landowners, and they rushed to the table.


Today, nearly 19 million acres are "protected" under HCPs for the benefit of hundreds of species, both listed and unlisted. The largest and most controversial plans are in California and in the spotted owl country of the Pacific Northwest (see page 15). HCPs have not penetrated the inland West, though there are plans in Nevada, Utah and Arizona. Many say it's only a matter of time.


Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt hails HCPs as the next wave in conservation and a win-win scenario for both landowners and endangered species. Without them, he says, we will surely lose most of the remaining private-land habitat for endangered species. "Amen," say The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and the Environmental Defense Fund.


Other environmentalists aren't so sure. Anything so attractive to timber corporations and land developers must be flawed, they reason, and plans are coming too quickly to figure out what they mean for species. As Tara Mueller, an activist who has read dozens of HCPs, put it: "My stomach turns when I hear Babbitt proclaim that 19 millions acres are protected under HCPs. For me, those lands are largely lost."


The debate over HCPs has spilled into the halls of Congress. In mid-July, Babbitt announced that the administration was ready to broker an agreement on the rewrite of the Endangered Species Act, which has been surviving on a year-to-year basis since it formally expired in 1993. This was big news; last year, the Interior secretary led the charge against Republican efforts to gut the law.


This time, Babbitt believes the cards are in his favor. The anti-environmental fervor has died down and the administration now has a whole arsenal of HCPs with which to show Congress and the public that the law works for private-property owners. Babbitt is pushing for a bill being drafted by a bipartisan team of senators - John Chafee, R-R.I., Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho, Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Max Baucus, D-Mont. It would basically codify the new, "user-friendly" law he has already created without Congress' help.


In the House, environmentalists say they will counter with a bill from Rep. George Miller of California; his bill will not do away with HCPs but will require higher scientific standards and more secure sources of money for monitoring and altering plans.


Thus it appears that HCPs are a permanent part of the political landscape. But what does that mean for the physical landscape and the forms of life that have evolved in it?


Reading the list of species covered under HCPs in the West is like taking a refresher course in evolution. There are the species - primarily at the top of the food chain - we all identify as endangered: the bald eagles, northern spotted owls, grizzly bears and gray wolves. But a host of little-known wildlife is also there: the mission blue butterfly, Stephen's kangaroo rat, surf thistles, sheath-tailed bats, Santa Cruz long-toed salamanders, black legless lizards, Southwestern arroyo toads, hundreds more.


These creatures remind us that diversity is not an abstract concept. The names on the list are our living, breathing relatives, and we still have a shot at saving them. n





Paul Larmer is HCN senior editor.