Builders, property advocates see big problems in species protection - Endangered species or land grab?

March 24, 2002

Nearly one quarter of the 55 species at the heart of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan haven't been documented recently in Pima County.

Only eight creatures on the county's "priority vulnerable" list are considered endangered by the federal government.

And 15 of the 55 species are types of talus snail - a sexually ambiguous mollusk that may lie dormant in rock slides for more than a year.

The list of 55 species - which is guiding the county's proposed wildlife preserves and land use restrictions - is made up of plants and animals that most Tucsonans will never see.

Is there a problem here?

Many developers and private property advocates think so. They say Pima County officials are using biologists' wish lists as a cover for their real goal: creating a growth management tool that could raise housing prices, cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and deprive people of using their land.

"They've picked their critters carefully, as umbrella species, so they can control as much land as possible," said Jonathan DuHamel, president of the Tucson chapter of People for the West, a property rights group.

Backers of the plan, however, say the list of 55 species makes ethical, economic and ecological sense. It will, they say, give developers more certainty and, paradoxically, disrupt growth less than a plan based only on the eight endangered species.

The scientists who formulated the list say so many of the species have "no recorded locations" because few people have been looking for them and knowledge of the county's biological resources is so poor.

And while the wildlife most Tucsonans identify with -javelina, roadrunners and gila monsters - is not on the county's list, biologists say protecting habitat for the 55 lesser-known creatures will preserve the entire region's ecosystem and maintain the web of life that binds all species, including humans.

"Protecting species is the fastest, best way to maintain our quality of life," said Kieran Suckling, director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "When we protect habitat for the pygmy owl or Pima pineapple cactus, we're protecting open space, clean air and clean water."

Biodiversity hot spot

If there's one thing nearly everyone agrees on, it's that Tucson is at the front lines of America's struggle with biodiversity.

Depending on your politics, Pima County is either blessed or cursed with an unusually large number of rare plants and animals - an ironic fact, given that many visitors expect to find a barren wasteland when they arrive here.

But in reality, our climate, geography, topography and rapid population growth have made Tucson one of the nation's hot spots for endangered species.

A 1998 study in the journal BioScience found Pima County had more threatened and endangered species than 95 percent of other counties.


Biologists say Tucson lies at the crossroads of four distinct regions - it is here where the Sonoran Desert melds into the Chihuahuan Desert, where the snow-capped Rocky Mountains and Mexico's more tropical Sierra Madre both exert an influence.

Also within this zone of ecological convergence lie numerous "sky island" mountain ranges rising more than a mile above a sea of desert to support vastly different flora and fauna in a moister, cooler environment.

Cutting across this diverse landscape are the strict mandates of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, regarded by friend and foe as the most powerful environmental law in history.

Although its exact application is regularly debated in federal courts, and its reach is routinely assaulted in Congress, the law's basic tenet stands: It is a crime to hurt creatures at risk of extinction, or significantly harm their habitat.

Owl chaos prompted plan

It was the fallout from the listing of one such species - the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl - that served as a catalyst for the county's conservation plan.

The owl's 1997 listing disrupted development in Northwest Tucson, delaying construction of homes, roads and a new high school and forcing some landowners to set aside 80 percent of their property.

Eager to avoid a repeat of the pygmy owl situation with other rare wildlife, county officials turned to an increasingly popular, yet controversial, part of the Endangered Species Act.

Section 10 lets the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service loosen some of the act's strictest prohibitions if a local government creates a habitat conservation plan designed with the fate of threatened and endangered species in mind.

In essence, federal regulators say they'll accept "incidental" harm to individual creatures if the county adopts a plan for the greater good of the species.

Dozens of major, multispecies conservation plans have been created throughout the country, including recent ones in San Diego, Las Vegas and Austin, Texas. They've often been welcomed by business interests as a relief from burdensome regulations and criticized by environmental advocates as a weakening of the Endangered Species Act.

Pima County officials say winning such a section 10 permit will serve as a "get out of jail free card" for the entire community. If Fish and Wildlife blesses the plan, county projects and private developments won't have to jump through so many hoops and worry so much about biodiversity issues.

"We're buying an insurance policy," said county Supervisor Sharon Bronson.

Initially, that prospect appealed to Tucson's business leaders. They envisioned "one-stop shopping" for permits and a more streamlined development process. Fewer delays would mean lower costs and higher profits.

Many still see the section 10 permit as a valuable goal.

"Mom and Pop can't afford to spend thousands of dollars and a year or two to develop their own section 10 permit before they put a mobile home out on an acre in Marana," said Realtor Bill Arnold, a member of the steering committee. "This would be a huge windfall, provided we get something done."

Others aren't so optimistic about the plan's benefits.

"There's nothing we've seen in the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan that will give us any relief from the Endangered Species Act," homebuilder Terry Klinger said.

55 species key map-making

The list of 55 species figures into this because these are the creatures that will be covered by the section 10 permit.

Accordingly, planners have relied on the list to figure out which areas of the county should be preserved and which should be developed.

Using sophisticated computer software, map-makers plotted suitable habitat for each of the 55 species. Then they layered the maps on top of one another. If a piece of land has suitable habitat for three or more species - though not necessarily the creatures themselves - it's a priority for protection.

Click on graphic to enlarge

Some hot spots, particularly riparian habitat along streams, have more than a dozen species. And county officials say using the three-species rule is the most efficient way to protect the region's biodiversity.

What remains unclear is just what restrictions will be imposed on a landowner whose property has habitat for three or more species.

The county would like to buy some of the most valuable habitat, but money constraints mean much of the land will remain in private hands and be protected through regulations.

The conservation plan won't affect a parcel's existing zoning. But it could affect what areas can be disturbed and whether a property can be rezoned to a more intense use, said Maeveen Behan, who is directing the plan for the county.

"No one knows the full consequences yet," said Bob Storie, president of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association. "It may make the land you own or contemplate building on a lot less valuable than you thought it was."

List of critters whittled down

So how was the list of 55 species developed?

The planners and scientists who created it describe the process this way:

First, the county cast a wide net, surveying biologists and local experts to come up with about 200 species of concern.

Then they filtered out all of the animals that live in habitat outside the county's control. For example, the endangered Mexican spotted owl was dropped since it's only found in high elevation forests, which are managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service.

Also excluded were species that are declining in Pima County, but not at risk overall, and species for which conservation is best done elsewhere.

"I liken the process to triage in the medical field," said Paul Fromer, a biologist with Recon, the San Diego-based consultants helping Pima County with the plan's science.

Like a battlefield medic who turns aside the mortally wounded victims he can't save and ignores the minor injuries that will turn out fine, the county is focusing on species in trouble that it can help, Fromer said.

There was some give and take between consultants and the county's science team about which species to include.

For example, some favored excluding the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher because the bird has rarely been found in the county. But the other side prevailed, and soon after a new breeding colony was found southeast of Tucson.

Uncertainty clouds science

The biologists who helped pick the species defend the process as state of the art and scientifically rigorous. But they admit another group of scientists may have made a different list and say the exercise is invariably subject to debate.

"Science is a quest for greater certainty. It never arrives at absolutely certainty," said Ken Kingsley, a Tucson biologist for the consulting firm SWCA who helped narrow the list of species to 55.

Such scientific uncertainty underlies nearly every environmental issue: How fast is the Earth warming? Does this chemical cause cancer?

Pima County's hazy, yet improving, knowledge of its natural resources poses another problem: What land do you protect if you don't know where critters live and how they make a living?

Allen's big-eared bat, for instance, "is not currently known to exist in Pima County" and there are no records of it in Arizona before 1955, according to a county report. "No known information" is available for the bat's population, reproduction rates or age distribution.

Yet the county says there is plenty of suitable habitat for the insect-feeding bat and "its presence is expected."

Kingsley, who lobbied to include the bat on the county's list, said the bats "darn well ought to be here" because we have the right habitat and they've been documented close by.

"We've done a really dismal job of exploring Pima County, looking for bats. There's probably fewer than 20 people who've actively looked for bats in Pima County in the last 100 years," he said.

But critics of the plan say if the county starts searching for rare species, it's looking for trouble.

"If nobody has seen or reported it in umpteen years, why are we concerned about it?" said Steve Emerine, manager of the Greater Tucson Planning Council, a business group fighting the plan. "It seems to some of us that we've got our hands full with the species we know are here."

Long list wise or excessive?

Emerine and others in the development community also question why the county is bothering with so many species that aren't listed as threatened or endangered by the federal government.

Backers of the plan say it's prudent to include species that might be listed as endangered in the future - otherwise Tucson could be blindsided by another listing like the pygmy owl's.

Other Southwestern conservation plans have done that, often at the behest of developers: Austin covered nine listed and 26 nonlisted species; San Diego dealt with 26 listed and 59 nonlisted; Las Vegas' Clark County had two listed and 77 nonlisted.

The county also argues that if it only looked at the eight listed species, the amount of land to be protected would be 96 percent of the amount preserved with the 55-species list. But the impact on development would be greater.

Take the Pima pineapple cactus, an endangered plant the county's Behan calls a "troublemaker" because "they're found in areas that people might point to and say, 'That's where we can build.'"

The cactus is the listed species most likely to be in conflict with development on the Southeast Side, where city officials expect Tucson to grow. But the problem is lessened, Behan said, because the county isn't looking to protect parcels with just the Pima pineapple cactus and no other vulnerable species. The county's priorities lie farther southeast, where land is cheaper and not as desirable for development.

Nevertheless, skeptics believe that even if the plan is approved and a section 10 permit is granted for the 55 species, the county could still be vulnerable to a lawsuit from a group like Tucson's Center for Biological Diversity, which has built a national reputation for aggressive litigation to list new species and protect their habitat.

Developers here say that after San Diego developed a multispecies conservation plan similar to Pima County's, the center came in and sued to protect species that weren't included.

"Even if you have 150 species, they could always say you didn't cover this one," said Michael Zimet, a residential land developer on the plan's steering committee who "fully expects" the center to sue Pima County as it did in San Diego. "As good as this plan may be, it's always subject to those who want to upset the apple cart."

Suckling, the center's director, said his group is satisfied so far with Pima County's plan and has no intention of litigating once the ink dries. The center sued over San Diego's plan because it had been "watered down" by developers to exclude a butterfly and an ambrosia plant that had been in the listing process since 1978.

"You can bet no environmental group will accept a species going extinct because it's not in the plan," he said. "If the plan is too weak to be acceptable, we haven't ended the conflict. The conflict will go on."


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