Who's stopping sprawl?

  • A BIRD IN THE HAND: Pygmy-owl

    Arizona Game and Fish Department photo

Note: this front-page essay introduces this issue's feature stories.

The northern spotted owl created an enormous controversy in the timber towns of the Pacific Northwest. But at least it never had to tangle with the PTA.

Less than 80 cactus ferruginous pygmy-owls are thought to survive in southern Arizona, and many of them live in the booming neighborhoods of Tucson, Ariz., pop. 823,000 and growing (HCN, 1/18/99). In the spring of 1997, the tiny bird was listed as endangered, and plans for a new high school next to known owl habitat were put on hold. Parents were outraged, the media coverage was relentless, and the pygmy-owl started to look like a menace to public education.

The Endangered Species Act had met urban sprawl.

"It's the toughest problem the Act faces," Michael Bean, a senior scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., says of urban endangered species conservation.

Endangered wildlife in and around cities face a unique set of problems. City dwellers' longtime support of the Endangered Species Act is tested by species listings in their backyards, and the powerful real estate industry is helping to increase political pressure against the law. Urban and suburban wildlife habitat on private land can also command movie-star prices, making low-cost conservation next to impossible. And once the habitat's gone, it's usually gone for good.

"We're talking about pavement - houses and shopping malls," says Brian Vincent, California organizer for the environmental group American Lands. "It's very difficult to reverse that."

Over the past few years, the Clinton administration has embraced habitat conservation plans as a way to preserve some endangered species habitat in the West's growing urban centers (HCN, 8/4/97). Instead of relying on strict enforcement of the law, these plans allow private landowners to develop some land in exchange for conserving other pieces of property.

In this special issue of High Country News, four stories look at the future of endangered species and their conservation plans in cities around the region. There are at least 250 existing plans, and more than 200 now in the works. Some of the plans are enormous, covering hundreds of thousands of acres and dozens of species - but only a very few are more than five years old. For the most part, this is unknown territory.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is championing the plans, and he says there's good reason for hope. As he sees it, habitat conservation plans are a way - maybe the only way - for the West's cities to conserve both open space and wildlife habitat. Yet some conservationists say the government is too eager to cut deals, and that what should be a tool of last resort is being used to sacrifice valuable habitat on private land.

The Endangered Species Act turned 25 last December. Is the administration's strategy the right one for the next quarter-century? Only the generations to come will know for sure, says Bean.

"(Babbitt) is the first (secretary) to extract a pound of flesh from the development industry for continuing what they've always done," he says. "That pound of flesh is what we'll have to show posterity - it's the land preserved in places like California, Texas and St. George, Utah. Whether that will be judged as enough remains to be seen."