Score one for the owl

  A federal judge has clamped down on permits for new subdivisions, roads, power lines, shopping malls, and other projects in the habitat of the endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl in and around Tucson.

Many of Tucson's suburbs continued to approve subdivisions after the pygmy-owl was listed in 1997, despite a county-wide effort to preserve the owl's habitat (HCN, 8/30/99). The projects need permits from the federal Army Corps of Engineers, but the Corps has routinely approved proposals affecting three-tenths of an acre or less of rivers and washes.

Now, that loophole has been closed. District Judge Alfredo Marquez" early October decision halts these "nationwide permits' for up to two years, and orders the Corps to conduct a regional study of how these projects combine to affect the owl. The ruling puts the brakes on some of Tucson's biggest developments, such as the 9,000-home, four-golf course Dove Mountain project in the Tortolita Mountains.

Kieran Suckling, director of the Center for Biological Diversity, calls the nationwide permits "a joke - a license to kill that the Army Corps doesn't take a second look at." " The center filed suit against the permit system, along with the Defenders of Wildlife and Tucson's Desert Watch. "They are not going to be able to give out these rubber stamps anymore," " he says.

Developers and state highway officials are alarmed because the ruling doesn't specify how much of the state will be affected. The Arizona Department of Transportation, which also needs Corps approval for many of its projects, has suspended nearly $1 billion worth of road construction, although less than $100 million worth of those projects lie in owl habitat. The department will keep the projects on hold until the judge clarifies where the permitting should be halted, says department spokesman Doug Nintzel.

"My concern is safety," " said Dennis Alvarez, who runs the highway department's Tucson-area district office. "The public will still be making demands to get roadways finished, and it is hard for us to explain that the process takes so long." "

* Tony Davis