NATIONAL WILDLIFE FEDERATION®
People and Nature: Our Future Is in the Balance™
For Immediate Release: Contact:
August 16, 2000 Ben McNitt (202) 797-6855
U.S. District Court Ruling In California
Will Improve Wildlife Safeguards Nationwide
WASHINGTON, D.C.: The National Wildlife Federation and five conservation allies today applauded a Federal District Court ruling in Sacramento, California, that will strengthen wildlife safeguards for Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs) nationwide. In a decision of national significance, the court on Tuesday found that the Natomas Basin HCP violates the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws.
"This decision will help protect endangered wildlife all across the country," said Mark Van Putten, President of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). "It is a major victory for common sense conservation that will require the government to make HCPs deliver on their promises, instead of delivering nothing but promises."
The Natomas HCP, approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in December 1997, purported to strike a balance between development in the 53,000-acre basin in and near Sacramento and the conservation needs of the 26 imperiled wildlife species residing there. However, the plan and accompanying permit allows habitat destruction on 8,000 acres in the City of Sacramento to go forward in return for nothing more than a small mitigation fee, without any effort to specify which lands would be needed by those species and without ensuring that the fees would be adequate to acquire and manage those lands.
NWF has long believed HCPs can safeguard wildlife while allowing sensible development to go forward. "This ruling affirms our belief that HCPs must provide real habitat protection on the ground, not mere promises on paper," said John Kostyack, NWF counsel and lead coalition attorney.
"From now on under this ruling, when federal wildlife agencies and developers prepare habitat conservation plans, they must strike a reasonable balance between development and conservation," Kostyack said. "No longer will developers be given a blank check to destroy endangered species habitat in return for vague promises that this destruction will be offset with conservation elsewhere."
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When FWS approved the Natomas Basin HCP, it allowed unlimited development in the endangered species habitats of the City of Sacramento based upon speculation that mitigation fees generated by such development would lead to the purchase and management of adequate wildlife reserves elsewhere in the basin. However, the location of the reserves were never identified and FWS admitted that it was highly uncertain whether the initial mitigation fees would be enough to pay for them. NWF and its partners in the case argued and the court agreed that FWS arbitrarily relied upon possible fee increases to be imposed on Sacramento and Sutter County developers to make up any shortfalls, even though FWS had never bothered to ensure that Sacramento and Sutter Counties would participate in the plan. The court noted that FWS also never required a backup guarantee from the City of Sacramento in the event of the counties' nonparticipation.
"This ruling puts an end to the old standard of guaranteeing development that will destroy imperiled wildlife habitat in return for promises that mitigation will occur sometime in the future, somewhere on land someone might be willing to sell, with funds that will be made available somehow," said Kostyack. "The new standard is that development can go forward in return for enforceable wildlife safeguards. That's the way it should be."
James Pachl, Legal Counsel for Friends of the Swainsons Hawk, commented, "This ruling shows that what we have been asking for along sensible development that goes forward only after the Swainsons hawk, the giant garter snake and other wildlife is safeguarded is exactly what the law requires. We hope that the Fish and Wildlife Service will now finally insist on real wildlife reserves and the funding to pay for them."
Jerry Meral, Executive Director of the Planning and Conservation League, NWF's California affiliate, said, "We are thrilled that the court resisted the pressures to go along with politics as usual and upheld our wildlife protection laws. People who care about endangered wildlife and promoting sensible development should be thrilled with this ruling, too."
The coalition that brought the case includes NWF, the Environmental Council of Sacramento, Friends of the Swainson's Hawk, Mountain Lion Foundation, Planning and Conservation League, and the Sierra Club. Debbie Sivas, of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, was Kostyack's co-counsel on the case.
The nations largest member-supported conservation education and advocacy group, the National Wildlife Federation unites people from all walks of life to protect nature, wildlife and the world we all share. The Federation has educated and inspired families to uphold Americas conservation tradition since 1936.