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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.

The land that has passed into "conserved" status is at even greater risk of fire than private land that is home to a protected species because absolutely no one cares for its fire management policy. The scrum of planners, consultants, and G-11s that put together the plans should be monitoring these areas closely. Instead, they regulate and move on to savage the property rights of the next region.

THE MOST PRESSING QUESTION for the federal government after the fires are put out will be the number of acres of land burned which had already been set aside for species conservation purposes. Whatever that number is, it will be a challenge to the drafters of the plans to provide evidence that they had anticipated the conserved acres being charred. Of course they didn't, but that won't protect the guilty from intoning about the natural benefits of fire. In their acquisitiveness, the planners have focused only on locking up land against development, not in protecting it from devastating fire. The nakedness of their error is found in the very plans they developed, which lack comprehensive fire management programs and the means to carry them out.

The Bush administration, as in so many areas, inherited eight years of disastrous extremism dressed up as "science"--described by Bruce Babbitt as "walking lightly on the land." Babbitt's tenure as Secretary of the Interior, seen through the smoke of California and the charred remains from Arizona, Colorado, and South Dakota, is clearly the most damaging to the environment in the history of the department.

All the fine phrases and photo-ops cannot disguise that the self-proclaimed defenders of the ecosystem have become its worst enemies.

Secretary of the Interior Gail Norton would be well advised to launch an investigation by an independent panel not dominated by agenda activists into the role in creating the conditions for this disaster played by the ESA and other federal controls such as those administered by the Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA. In the meantime, the agency ought to promulgate a nationwide "take" permit for fire protection activities impacting endangered species. There is no need for a sequel.

The key recognition: The species that live close to humans are the ones that are faring the best. When the chips are down, we are species-centric, and rush to save the lives and property of human beings. Habitat conservation planners would be well advised to remember that the proximity of human housing to species preserves isn't a threat to those preserves, it is a guarantee of active and species-saving management.

Hugh Hewitt is the host of The Hugh Hewitt Show, a nationally syndicated radio talkshow, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard. His new book, In, But Not Of, has just been published by Thomas Nelson.