Kaua'i Council critical of habitat designation
By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Kaua'i Bureau
LIHU'E, Kaua'i The Kaua'i County Council has expressed concern about a plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish nearly 100,000 acres of the county as critical habitat for endangered plants.
While agreeing that critical habitat in many ways may be a good thing, the council also complained that officials of the Fish and Wildlife Service have not handled their message very well.
It's an important issue for the federal agency, which is preparing to take similar critical habitat issues to the public for each of the other major counties.
A notable gaffe was a public hearing in which the hearing officer sat on a dais high above the audience, with security officers standing by. It offended nearly everyone present, said council Chairman Ron Kouchi.
"I'm not ready to back off on sending a strong message back to them," he said.
At the next hearing, on critical habitat for the Newcomb's snail, the security folks were gone and the federal officials were back at ground level.
The council, in a resolution passed unanimously Thursday, called on the wildlife service to consider alternative dispute resolution and more consultation with the community before it makes any final decisions.
The resolution also called on the service to rethink its proposal to establish a quarter of the county's land area as critical habitat.
But council members also said they recognize the value of the designation in "helping to protect intact native forests and other ecosystems that promote groundwater recharge, maintain surface water quality, prevent siltation of near-shore reefs and other marine resources, combat global warming, provide recreational opportunities and attract eco-tourism."
Council members have heard the complaints of the island's hunting community that they fear they will be banned from hunting in critical habitat areas.
Landowner and private conservationist Keith Robinson said it is a legitimate fear. Hikers, hunters and even illegal marijuana growers regularly tramp alien species seeds into the forest, he said. It is reasonable to fear that the federal government will use this "as an excuse to exclude the public from areas designated critical habitat."
David Henkin, attorney with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, said it is actually more likely that hunting will be actively promoted in critical habitat regions, because goats and pigs are major threats to native species.
Henkin and Robinson, in testimony before the council, faced off on the science of endangered plants.
Robinson argued that Hawaiian native plants evolved without competition and will never be able to actively compete against all the aggressive alien species now in the forests. The ongoing biological replacement of native species with aliens is "irreversible," he said.
Henkin said the state's best scientists have prepared proposed critical habitat designations, and their work has been reviewed by other experts. He said proposed habitat areas are large because of "criticism from peer reviewers that without the unoccupied areas, you can't recover the species."
The Fish and Wildlife Service is required under the federal Endangered Species Act to outline areas that are needed to allow species to survive and to recover and be removed from the endangered species list. That includes both the land on which the species are now found, but also unoccupied land experts feel must be reoccupied to take the plants off the list.