More than 100 debate salamander protections - Developers, environmentalists make cases at U.S. Fish and Wildlife meeting

July 30, 2003


Homebuilders and business groups squared off with environmentalists and scientists Tuesday about federal protection for the California tiger salamander in Sonoma County.

Business interests argued that restrictions on growth intended to protect the salamander are crippling the economy and hindering needed housing and road projects.

"No one has a disrespect for God's creatures, including the tiger salamander, but we have greater concerns for the people who live here," said Keith Woods, chief executive officer of the North Coast Builders Exchange. "Our economy is suffering ... and we don't need anything else added on that's going to cause us problems."

Environmentalists countered that the economic woes of developers are no reason to further imperil a creature whose habitat has been decimated by urbanization and farming.

"The tiger salamander may just be an indicator of an ecosystem that is collapsing," said Denise Cadman, who owns an organic farm within the potential salamander range. "It seems short-sighted to me that the development community would like to give away the future for future generations to have a short-term economic gain this decade."

The arguments were made at a public forum hosted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which declared the county's population of the salamander an endangered species in March. But in May, the agency proposed downgrading the salamander's status to threatened, which eases limits on what can be done on its habitat.

The hearing drew about 130 people to the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa, and the testimony will be evaluated in the agency's final decision due next spring.

The meeting gave an indication of how local groups are lining up on the salamander issue. Aligning with the business groups were the carpenters union, the county Farm Bureau and a grape growers association and Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park city council members and county supervisors.

Those against weakening the protections were wetlands experts, biologists, the Sierra Club and Sebastopol City Councilwoman Linda Kelley.

In response to a lawsuit filed by an environmental group, the Fish and Wildlife Service imposed emergency rules to protect the salamander last year and declared it an endangered species in March.

The decision created an uproar because the potential salamander range runs from Santa Rosa to Sebastopol and Windsor to Cotati, including vacant land designated to absorb growth. Anyone looking to build within the range has to get permission from the federal government first.

Adding to the controversy is the salamander's elusive lifestyle. No one knows how many salamanders there are in the county because they spend most of their lives underground, emerging only on dark winter nights to breed in seasonal ponds.

Determining if they live on a property can take up to two years of biological surveys, which has prompted complaints about projects such as roads, schools, businesses and homes being delayed.

The agency's decision to declare the salamander an endangered species is based on the loss of habitat and a finding that the Sonoma County population is isolated and genetically distinct from other salamander populations in the state.

Dozens of speakers at the forum said the agency's decision to declare the species endangered isn't justified by science.

But backers of the endangered species designation said it is supported because so much of the salamander's habitat has been destroyed and there are only eight known breeding ponds left in the county.


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