More than 100 debate salamander protections - Developers, environmentalists
make cases at U.S. Fish and Wildlife meeting
July 30, 2003
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
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.