Last year, when the federal government designated Tucson's northwest side as critical habitat for the endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl (HCN, 8/30/99: A pocket-sized bird takes on Sunbelt subdivisions), developers feared their boom had busted. But a federal Fish and Wildlife Service decision in late July may bring the bulldozers back.
The agency says developer Eric Tobin can blade more than 20 acres of desert on his property to make room for nearly 100 homes. In exchange, Tobin will leave about three acres undisturbed and buy an additional 60 acres of undeveloped critical habitat elsewhere.
"We feel this is defensible," Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Mike Wrigley says. "It provides some good conservation measures for the owl as well as Mr. Tobin's project."
Barbee Hanson, a consultant to Tobin, says the decision ends a "nightmare" of changing and conflicting federal actions on the project. The property was rezoned for residential development more than a year ago. Construction will wait another nine to 12 months, until Tobin secures approval from local officials for final subdivision plans.
There are more than 50 construction projects proposed for critical owl habitat in northwest Tucson, including a 6,500-home development called Dove Mountain. Environmentalists fear the recent approval is only the first of many. David Hogan of the Center for Biological Diversity says the federal government should have barred development on this parcel and compensated Tobin with fees raised from other developments in the county.
"By definition, critical habitat includes those areas essential for survival and recovery of the pygmy-owl," he says, "so you can understand our concern and confusion when the service elects to permit destruction of critical habitat." The center wants to establish in court that no development is permitted in critical habitat; staffers plan to eventually file a lawsuit on the issue in Arizona or California.