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The Planet

September 1997, Volume 4, number 7

HCPs: A Sweet Idea Gone Sour

by Rebecca Bernard

Private lands harbor much of the best remaining habitat for America's endangered wildlife -- yet protecting this habitat often clashes with landowners' (usually large corporations) development plans and economic objectives. The Clinton administration is increasingly offering the use of habitat conservation plans as a solution to these conflicts on private lands. Environmentalists, however, are deeply concerned that HCPs favor landowners' development goals at the expense of species conservation and recovery.

An HCP is a document that a landowner must prepare to obtain permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (or the National Marine Fisheries Service) to "take" (kill, harm, or disrupt the essential habitat of) a threatened or endangered species.

For instance, a landowner wishing to build houses in the habitat of a listed species may skirt the Endangered Species Act's ban on taking a listed species by preparing an HCP and obtaining an "incidental take permit." In the HCP, the landowner must propose habitat conservation measures to reduce the habitat loss caused by the proposed activity. Thus, an HCP must specify the habitat impacts of the proposed activity; describe steps the landowner will take to minimize and mitigate those impacts; identify funding adequate to implement the plan; and avoid appreciably reducing the affected species' chances of surviving and recovering in the wild.

Unfortunately, many approved HCPs fall far short of these requirements. Around the country, Sierra Club activists are voicing their concerns about HCPs, recommending stronger conservation measures and opposing plans that fail to protect wildlife.

An HCP can cover a few acres or hundreds of thousands of acres, and can involve rural lands or -- as in San Diego and Orange County, Calif. -- urban and suburban lands.

In Washington state, Club activists worked hard to improve the Plum Creek Timber Company's HCP, but in its final form the plan benefits the landowner at the expense of endangered wildlife. Plum Creek's 169,000 acres of forested lands in Washington's Cascade Mountains are intermingled with national forest land and include old-growth forest that provides important habitat for the federally listed northern spotted owl, marbled murrelet, grizzly bear, the endangered gray wolf and 281 other species.

The HCP, which has received federal approval, allows the company to clearcut throughout its property with only minimal restrictions. Plum Creek may cut trees in nearly all northern spotted owl nesting habitat, fragmenting and destroying it, and may build new roads across both private and public roadless areas. The plan provides little protection for critical watersheds; only fish-bearing streams are protected with no-cut buffers and 1,000 miles of intermittent streams have no buffers. Despite the plan's lack of real conservation measures, Plum Creek received a take permit that is good for 100 years, and assurances that the company's obligations will not change, regardless of new information or events that may later threaten the species' survival such as as a forest fire. This "no surprises" provision is probably the worst aspect of the Plum Creek HCP. "'No surprises' lets wealthy corporations like Plum Creek off the hook for future problems, and forces the American taxpayers to foot the bill," says Sierra Club forest activist Charlie Raines. "We may not even be able to fix problems later on, because once old-growth forest is cut, it's gone." At this point, the only solution is U.S. Forest Service acquisition of the roadless areas and river corridors.

HCPs that give such assurances to landowners in exchange for inadequate conservation measures can be devastating to wildlife even when only small acreages are involved. Along Alabama's Gulf Coast, the coastal sand dune habitat of the endangered Alabama beach mouse continues to be whittled away, even though the Fish and Wildlife recovery plan calls for preservation of all remaining beach mouse habitat.

Two recently approved HCPs in beach mouse habitat -- covering the "Beach Club" and "Martinique on the Gulf" condominium developments -- are typical in their lack of real conservation measures. The plans allow developers to kill individual beach mice and destroy and fragment desperately needed habitat, but offer no guarantee that any habitat will be permanently protected in exchange. Instead, the plans propose paltry measures such as restricting lighting around the condos to avoid disturbing the nocturnal beach mouse, and discouraging residents from owning cats. Though Club activists in the Alabama Chapter submitted comments protesting these severely flawed HCPs, Fish and Wildlife approved the plans anyway. The Club responded by taking the agency to court.

Habitat conservation planning can be a pressure release valve preventing head-on collisions between landowners and endangered wildlife -- but not when deals are struck that overwhelmingly favor landowners. For HCPs to work, the balance needs to be shifted back toward the needs of imperiled wildlife and their habitats, which means that HCPs must:

  • Enhance the species' chance of recovering in the wild;
  • Include concrete conservation measures -- such as permanent protection of habitat;
  • Require review by independent scientists;
  • Retain landowner mitigation responsibility to respond to new information or events;
  • Ensure adequate funding to implement the plan, even if the landowner defaults;
  • Encourage public participation in conservation planning.
Chapters and groups can request policy and press materials about HCPs from the Club's national Endangered Species and Habitats Campaign Steering Committee to help evaluate local HCPs and educate the local community about them. For more information

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