From: Don Thompson, Associated Press
Published November 19, 2004 12:00 AM

Feds Propose $2 Billion Plan to Protect Seasonal Pools

SACRAMENTO, Calif. − They are puny, peculiar and strictly part-time -- the plants and animals that populate shallow ponds across California and southern Oregon, coming to life each winter and disappearing in summer. But with development drying up these vernal pools, they're also endangered.


Federal wildlife regulators on Thursday proposed a $2 billion plan to rescue a score of the uniquely adapted species and other critters of concern: oddities like nearly invisible shrimp, toads that doze underground for months and colorful wildflowers that form concentric bull's-eye rings around the ponds.


Since the plan is voluntary, there is no cost or effect on property owners unless they choose to participate.


Years of toil by developers and farmers have blotted out three-quarters of the vernal pools that once dotted 22 million acres of the coastal states.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's designation last year of 740,000 acres as critical habitat for the ponds have prompted lawsuits and acrimonious hearings. Environmental groups want more safeguards, while builders fear protections would stall housing needed to keep up with growth.


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The recovery plan the service proposed for public review Thursday grew out of a settlement of the first in a continuing series of lawsuits over the designation, but is a separate and purely cooperative approach.


"Partnerships with private landowners are the key" to saving the species, Steve Thompson, manager of the service's California-Nevada office, said in announcing the proposal.


Property owners could continue "compatible activities" on their land, enter conservation agreements that stave off development, and qualify for federal funding to protect and restore the pools, Thompson said.


The plan sets protection of 683,000 acres as its first priority, saying those pools are vital to saving 20 threatened and endangered plants and animals from extinction or irreversible decline. That alone would cost an estimated $771.7 million.


The focus would shift to other areas as needed. Protecting all the 1.5 million acres included in the proposal would cost an estimated nearly $2.1 billion.


The proposal includes no funding itself, but once adopted would be used to seek and target money from federal, state, local and private sources, said service spokesman James Nickles.


If successful, the plan would resuscitate most of the species enough to remove them from federal listing in 58 years.


In addition to the 20 listed plants and animals, the plan proposes to help another 13 "species of concern" -- 33 in all -- that thrive and reproduce in weeks, leaving seeds and eggs behind in the fast-drying mud to survive until the next rain comes.


The service is soliciting comments on the plan through March 18, and plans public workshops on the proposal. The final plan is expected late next year.


Source: Associated Press


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