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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 7, 2002

Push to protect habitats worrisome to landowners

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, under federal court deadlines, is seeking to designate vast regions of the Islands as critical habitat for endangered species, leading some to ask what that will cost the community.

The most recent proposal calls for nearly 100,000 acres of critical habitat in Kaua'i County — a quarter of Kaua'i and Ni'ihau's roughly 400,000 acres. Other islands, especially the Big Island, may be in for even bigger protected areas.

While most of the land is in upland regions already under government control, on Kaua'i a third of the property is in private ownership. Having one's property designated as critical habitat creates significant risk, private landowners say.

But at the same time there are significant benefits to society from protecting and expanding forest areas that are the habitat of rare native plants, environmental groups argue.

"The impact is going to be huge," said Cynthia Salley, general partner of McCandless Land and Cattle on the Big Island. She had firsthand experience with the government stepping onto her family's land to manage endangered species — in her case the 'alala or Hawaiian crow.

Today her family has limited use of the land, and 5,300 acres of former McCandless Ranch land have been purchased by the federal government and transformed into the Kona unit of the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge — even though there are only two crows left in the wild, and they spend just part of their time on the property.

Technically, critical habitat designation affects only the activity of federal agencies and projects paid for by the federal government. Projects on critical habitat must consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to minimize impacts on endangered plants, birds and other life forms.

"Critical habitat designation does not require local government agencies, landowners or organizations to change their land management practices or uses," said Barbara Maxfield, external affairs chief of the Pacific Islands office of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

But Salley said the reality is likely to be dramatically increased scrutiny of any action on those protected lands. "If you move a tree, it's going to be a taking (of an endangered species)," she said.

Furthermore, the resale value will be reduced, affecting a landowner's ability to get loans to conduct business on the land, and the ability to eventually obtain a fair price for it.

"Would I go out and buy a piece of property that was critical habitat? Not on your life," Salley said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service was taken to court by the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, on behalf of the Conservation Council for Hawai'i, on grounds that the agency had not designated critical habitat in Hawai'i, as it was required to do under the federal Endangered Species Act for endangered life forms.

The federal court ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to get cracking, and set deadlines.

"The law requires us to identify enough land that will lead to the recovery and ultimate delisting of the species," Maxfield said.

The agency has no choice. And on Kaua'i, with critical habitats designated for 83 species, the habitat covers a lot of ground.

Too much, according to Michael Buck, head of the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife, which had recommended a much smaller critical habitat area. Much of the proposed habitat is not occupied by endangered plants, but was felt capable eventually of supporting the plants when their numbers recovered.

Buck insists that a lot of the land is severely degraded and will never make good habitat. Maxfield disagreed.

"Areas that are severely degraded or do not contain the appropriate environmental or ecological components were not designated as critical habitat," he said.

Creating vast protected areas will generate battles between hunters and environmental groups, hikers, land managers and others. Buck said those battles are costs to the community not counted in most assessments.

"They took almost all of West Kaua'i. It's just not feasible," Buck said. "If the purpose of critical habitat is to recover the plants, what's the purpose of drawing lines around stuff that you're not ever going to recover?

"I doubt in a hundred years we will recover plants in some of the areas they've laid out."

David Henkin, the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund attorney assigned to the case, said Buck and other land managers should use the data developed by Fish and Wildlife Service biologists to better manage the land.

"The goal is to try to restore these areas," he said. "It is probably tempting to look at the economic costs. Fortunately the Endangered Species Act also requires the service to also look at the economic benefits."

Healthy Hawaiian forests recharge groundwater, reduce erosion, cut the amount of silt deposited on reefs during rains and improve the Islands' appearance to tourists. All those things have economic value, Henkin said.

Some argue that no matter how much money is spent, few Hawaiian species are capable of full recovery, given changes in the ecosystem that include aggressive alien plants, diseases, insects, grazing animals, rats and wild pigs.

"They are not coming back. As we speak, the ranges (of native plants) are shrinking in the wild," said Keith Robinson, who privately operates two native plant refuges and is a part-owner of the island of Ni'ihau. "They're not making it. There's too much competition."

Robinson expressed frustration that the federal government is designating private lands as critical habitat but not spending the effort to protect native species on government lands.

"They're not doing it on public lands, but if you preserve something and they find an endangered species on your land, then they start dictating to you.

"There is a real atmosphere of fear out there. They (private landowners) don't trust the federal government and they don't trust the environmentalists. You don't want to be caught with the last population" of an endangered species, Robinson said.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.