Endangered Species Act: Salamander endangers education, threatens property rights

by Brent Duncan
For Freedom 21 Santa Cruz


A long-toed salamander is threatening to devour a $24 million school construction project and may also consume the property rights of many residents in this rural community on the Monterey Bay. No, this isn't the plot of another far-fetched disaster movie by the UFO-logists who brought us "A Day After Tomorrow". It is, however, becoming an increasingly common theme played out in communities around the nation, courtesy of eco-litigators backed by the Endangered Species Act. The Aptos Salamander situation not only provides a new perspective on the endangered-education angle, it is helping local residents recognize that the cost of eco-indulgence may be their property.

A vital point that takes the salamander puddle beyond an issue of simply sucking education funds from kids to an issue that could greatly impact the lives and property of many Aptos residents: Aptos High School (AHS) is within a one-half mile radius of the salamander pond; that's a one-mile diameter! This brings up many important issues that local media has failed to address, but that are important for homeowners to consider: How many homeowners live in the one-mile Salamander Circle? How many Aptos residents suddenly lost their rights to use and improve their property? What happens if the salamander actually migrates to the edge of the Salamander Circle -- do we then see another 1/2 diameter of private property get sucked into an ever expanding black hole of environmental protection? Is it worth every billion it costs if we save but one salamander life - or are there more responsible and effective ways to be good stewards of the earth while protecting our inalienable rights?

While most of us may be supporters of protecting endangered species, it seems important that we consider the true cost of such indulgence. Arbitrarily establishing a one-mile diameter for salamander habitat in a populated area might mean more than just taking money from kids; it may also be sacrificing the rights of many local residents to enjoy the use of their property.

A report titled "Accounting for Species: the True Costs of the Endangered Species Act" by the Property and Environment Research Center (www.perc.org/) indicates that Aptos residents may be facing what has become a common situation in today's eco-political climate. In short, if the pattern identified in the PERC report holds true, AHS may need to prepare to fork over a significant amount of bond money and land to eco-litigators and eco-consultants in the name of the salamander.

Compounding the costs, homeowners within Salamander Circle might find themselves faced with paying heavy habitat mitigation fees to eco-extortionists - or even permanent road blocks - the next time they file for a permit to improve their property. This might seem a bit "out there" for those who are seeing it for the first time; however, property owners may want to become familiar with a couple of similar cases at other California schools, as cited in the PERC report:

"Local governments everywhere are finding themselves limited by the ESA. They are not allowed to build schools, hospitals, roads, and other infrastructure projects in areas designated as critical habitat...

"A new high school was delayed one year in Vista Murrieta, California, by the Quino checkerspot butterfly. The school ended up costing... $1.25 million more than it would have cost.

"In January 2004, plans to build a new elementary school in Wildomar, California, were put on hold because of the checkerspot butterfly and the California gnatcatcher. Students will probably start school in the fall of 2004 in portable classrooms, and the school district may have to purchase other potentinal habitat as mitigation for building the school."

Fortunately, local media has put a spotlight on the eco-litigators; this could result in a less-resource-intensive resolution of the AHS construction issue. However, Salamander Circle could continue to suck money and land from Aptos residents long after the AHS construction issue is resolved. The PERC report says:

"Seventy-five percent of all listed (endangered) species have portions or all of their habitat on private lands, and landowners are not compensated for their losses from ESA regulations. The economic costs (to private land owners) of designating critical habitat just for the coastal California gnatcatcher will average $300 million per year."

Because we would all like to consider ourselves good stewards of the planet, we seem to have developed a collective tendency to look the other way when neighbors have lost their property rights to special interest groups in the name of the environment.

When a large segment of our community seems to be directly confronted by policies, procedures and laws enacted by government and non-government organizations in the name of the planet, some of us may get a tough lesson in the true cost of eco-litigation to our families, our homes and our freedoms.

Happy earth day.

This commentary is adapted from the author's article titled: "Salamanders, education, and property rights," which appeared in the Register-Pajaronian on May 2, 2004.

Related stories include:
Advance Bulletin: Endangered Education: Salamander may get bond funds meant for building classroom
Register-Pajaronian: Salamander could slow down construction at Aptos High
Santa Cruz Sentinel: Salamander may stall Aptos High construction



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