'I've never seen a good HCP'

  • Tara Mueller

    Courtesy Tara Mueller

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories.

Attorney Tara Mueller works with the Environmental Law Fund in Oakland, Calif., where she helps grassroots environmental groups monitor Habitat Conservation Plans.

Tara Mueller: "I can't say that I've ever seen an example of a good HCP. There're so many places that these plans go awry and become political. The pressure to capitulate to developers is huge.

"Even the central coast plan for Orange County, which Babbitt declared a win-win, has major problems. The Nature Conservancy, the government and the other environmentalists got diddly. Out of the 38,000 acres they proclaim is saved from development, 17,000 is public land and the majority of the rest the developers had already set aside as open space mitigation for their developments. The Irvine Company, which owns most of the remaining coastal scrub, gave up just 3,000 additional acres in exchange for 75 years of freedom from the Endangered Species Act. We need to get more upfront in these deals if they are going to give the companies so much certainty.

"When we discover that the plans are failing and won't save the species, we'll have a savings-and-loan-type crisis. But, believe me, there won't be any public bailout for the plants and animals. The agency's HCP manual states that under no circumstances can the government require a permittee to dedicate more land or restrict his land use or ask him to pay more to protect endangered species. That only leaves the option of changing the way the lands already set aside are managed. That's nothing.

"Protecting endangered species is no different than air quality or water quality or even traditional land-use regulations. Developers must set aside land for parks, streets, sewers and other public services. Those are the conditions of approval for the development. Protecting endangered species should be no different.

"Proponents say 'no surprises' just shifts the burden to the public should a plan need to be changed because of new information. Well, show me the money. Congress won't even approve buyout money for the Headwaters redwoods grove or the New World Mine near Yellowstone. How's it going to come up with money to change plans for a small endangered bird?"