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Paper Exercise or Real Progress?
Felice Pace, High Country News Goat Blog
March 16, 2009

Felice Pace

In words typical of claims by environmental organizations, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recently trumpeted “a big step forward for polar bear protection” when the Bush Administration agreed to designate critical habitat for the Polar Bear as part of a settlement with the group and its allies (Nature’s Voice, Jan/Feb 2009). Based on my experience with critical habitat designated for the Coho salmon, however, my guess is that the designation will not make much difference in what actually takes place on the ground.

A final critical habitat designation for Central California Coast and Southern Oregon/Northern California Coasts Coho salmon was published by the National Marine Fisheries Service (MNFS) on May 5, 1999. NMFS first proposed protection not only for the beds, banks and waters of Coho streams but also for riparian areas sized in accordance with the Aquatic Conservation Strategy (ACS) for public land adopted a few years before as part of the Northwest Forest Plan. But the loud outcry from timber, agriculture, development interests and local governments resulted in changes. The final designation included the extent of riparian vegetation associated with Coho streams. In this region that is generally far less than the “site tree length” definition of riparian zones found in the ACS.

Ten years have passed since the critical habitat designation. During that time I have personally observed numerous instances of adverse modification of critical Coho habitat. In Northwest California, county bureaucrats have allowed houses to be built next to Coho streams, farmers have cleared riparian vegetation from stream sides, ranchers have allowed livestock to trample stream banks and foul streams, and timber companies have continued to log on steep, unstable slopes prone to delivering massive amounts of sediments to streams when big storms follow clear cuts. The adverse modification of Coho critical habitat is widespread in Northwest California. Even some county road crews continue to dispose of silt from cut-bank failures and ditches in riparian zones where high water can wash the habitat destroying silt into streams.

The listing of Coho pursuant to the ESA has led to better logging rules in those parts of California where Coho survive. It appears, however, that the more protective rules are the result of the ESA’s prohibition on “take” and not on the critical habitat designation. Furthermore, NMFS is on record that the new logging rules are not adequate to protect Coho. Road maintenance and clear cutting on steep slopes are practices which continue to degrade and destroy Coho habitat.

Is the failure of critical habitat designation to deliver promised benefits to Coho in Northwest California an aberration? Could critical habitat designation help Coho if we had activists and lawyers here willing to force critical habitat protection through complaints and lawsuits? Or is critical habitat designation a “paper tiger” which the environmental establishment and opponents of the ESA collude to promote as important when it changes little or nothing on the ground?

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