The Blog

Up In Smoke

A decade and a half of species protection planning helps bring on a species disaster in the fires of California.

11:00 PM, Oct 29, 2003 • By HUGH HEWITT
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THE STEPHEN'S KANGAROO RAT was listed as "endangered" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on October 31, 1988. This little-noticed action launched a revolution in land use in southern California that has culminated in the fires that have now claimed at least 17 lives, destroyed close to 2,000 homes, and consumed more than 600,000 acres throughout the region. For 15 years the federal government, urged on by environmental activists and assisted by state agency bureaucrats, has pursued an aggressive displacement of local authorities from the control of land use policies, all in the name of environmental protection. The result is an environmental disaster on a monumental scale.

The listing of the rat was followed in close order by the listings of the desert tortoise, the California gnatcatcher, the Delhi sands flower-loving fly, the arroyo toad, the Riverside fairy shrimp, the San Bernadino kangaroo rat, and scores of other plants and animals. In the wake of each listing came massive dislocations in land use planning because the destruction of even a single specimen of an endangered species--innocent or intentional--carries criminal penalties. The listings also trigger massive government mapping exercises, as the Service is obliged to designate "critical habitat" for every species it denominates as "threatened" or "endangered." The critical habitat for the desert tortoise, for example, covers 6.4 million acres in three states, including huge swatches of land in southern California.

The critical habitat designations themselves make land use decisions incredibly complicated, but they are only the half-way station to total federal authority over land. Desperate to regain some control over lands that are home to any of the long list of endangered species, the region's local governments have rushed to enter incredibly complicated, expensive ,and unwieldy "habitat conservation plans." Just one of these plans, the City of San Diego's Multiple Species Conservation Plan covers 900 square miles, the vast majority of which is within the City of San Diego alone. All of these plans dictate which acres may be developed and which must be set aside for species protection. The San Diego plan targeted 171,917 undeveloped acres for conservation, and boldly declared that the "MSCP will protect habitat for over 1,000 native and nonnative plant species and more than 380 species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals."

While no exact mapping of the fires' destruction has yet been overlaid on the boundaries of the San Diego plan, vast portions of it have been scorched and laid to waste, with certain further damage in the future when the rains come and erosion follows the water.

THE MANY SPECIES CONSERVATION PLANS that cover the southern California region all make claims of benefit to the species they purport to protect similar to the claims in the San Diego plan. It is now perfectly obvious that "habitat conservation plans" are to species protection what Soviet five-year plans were to steel production: A vast amount of wasted ink and money, signifying only the ideology and vanity of the planners. I have been a participant in many of these discussions, as a lawyer representing landowners, and know first hand the arrogance of the agencies that issue these orders and devise these grand schemes. Don't count on any apologies coming from their direction.

The post-mortem on the fires should lead to the most brutal review of the federal Endangered Species Act in its 30 year history. Nowhere more so than in southern California has more time and money has been invested in the idea that government bureaucrats (working with environmental activists, using the money scalped from landowners) can build a better nature than local governments and the market would otherwise deliver. The stubborn fact is California has never had fires of this magnitude. Now that the federal government is running a huge portion of land use, disaster strikes.

The core problem is that species protection prohibits many ordinary fire precautions. You cannot clear coastal sage scrub, no matter how dense, if a gnatcatcher nests within it--unless the federal government provides a written permission slip which is extraordinarily difficult to obtain. The same prohibition lurks behind every species designation, and can even apply to land on which no endangered species has ever been seen but about which allegations of "potential occupation" have been made.