UC professor says government underestimates impact of habitat designation

The Associated Press
The Oregonian

2/26/03 8:15 PM

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- A University of California, Berkeley, professor says the federal government is using an analysis method that seriously underestimates the economic impact of critical habitat designations for imperiled species.

David Sunding, an associate professor of natural resource economics, made his finding in a report funded by the California Resource Management Institute, a nonprofit group that researches information relating to the state's natural resources. Sunding wrote the report with David Zilberman, a UC Berkeley professor of agriculture and resource economics, and with graduate student Aaron Swoboda.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is required to set aside land as "critical habitat" for species on the endangered species list. Before authorizing the designation, the service must look at its potential economic impacts.

The designation protects areas where each species lives but does not preclude development. Instead, it serves as a guideline for projects that involve federal funds. Regulatory requirements for most private property owners are no greater under the designation than under the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits the killing or removal of a protected species or its habitat.

The Fish and Wildlife Service contracts with companies to do the economic impact analyses. As a case study, Sunding's report compared a method he developed for determining economic impact with the service's method. Sunding distinguished between expected economic losses to consumers, developers, landowners and others, while the method the government uses looks only at losses to landowners.

Sunding examined the potential impact of designating 1.6 million acres of critical habitat to protect vernal pools in California and part of Oregon. Vernal pools fill with rain during the winter but evaporate during summer months, leaving only specially adapted plants and animals such as those proposed for protection. At least 11 threatened and endangered species live in the pools.

Sunding's report, released Feb. 20, found the service underestimated the actual impact by seven to 14 times. It said economic impacts of the designation include the cost of delaying projects, reducing their size, changing the configuration of cities and increasing the cost of other regulation resulting from the designation.

Chris Tollefson, a spokesman with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency had not seen the report and could not comment on it specifically.

"We're always interested in improving the quality of the work we do," Tollefson said.

He said the agency has focused in recent years not on designating critical habitat, but getting imperiled species on the endangered species list.

"The bulk of protections of the act come when a species is listed," he said.

But lawsuits have prompted the service to pursue more critical habitat designations. The lawsuits are also what prompted the California Resource Management Institute to initiate a study, said executive director Cliff Moriyama.

Moriyama said environmental and conservation groups often sue the federal government to get habitat designated for threatened or endangered species, and then landowners, local governments and others often sue after habitat is designated, claiming the economic impact of the designation wasn't properly assessed.

"It's been so litigious," Moriyama said. "Our hope is if they can do a better job or more realistic approach, maybe that might stop the litigation, so that potentially more funding could go to actual species-related issues than attorneys fees."

The report looked at the analysis of profit-generating activities, such as using the land to build homes on or making it into a vineyard. It did not look at public projects, such as building a freeway on the land, Moriyama said.

A representative for Economic and Planning Systems, which conducted the vernal pool analysis for the government, did not immediately return a call for comment Wednesday.


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