The mud puddle preservation plan

Posted: Feb 02, 2005 12:00 AM

When I was a boy growing up in California we called them "mud puddles." If they grew large enough, grown ups called it "flooding."

 But now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which enforces the Endangered Species Act, has adopted the bogus poetry of the environmentalist left, calling them "vernal pools."

 The question for the immediate future is whether a federal government controlled by Republicans will allow either bureaucrats or un-elected judges to use these "vernal pools" to shutdown development on vast stretches of private property and thus help push the American dream beyond the grasp of some aspiring homeowners in our nation's most populous state.

 What we are talking about is the stagnant water that often collects in small ditches or low patches of land in California after winter rains. By summer, these puddles and flooded areas revert to clumps of yellowed grass.

 In dry years, they might never materialize. As FWS admitted in a 593-page report released in November: "The duration of the ponding of vernal pools also varies, and in some years certain pools may not fill at all."

 So tiny are some of these evanescent water hazards that a kindergartener could vault one in a single bound. "Vernal pools," says the report, "vary from 1 square meter (approximately 1 square yard) to 1 hectare (2.5 acres) or more."

 But their impact on property rights could be huge.

 About a decade ago, environmental groups began court actions aimed at forcing FWS to list as endangered four species of shrimp that live in California's mud puddles, and to set aside land as "critical habitat" for them. Eventually, FWS listed the shrimp, as well as eleven species of mud-puddle plants.

 As it now stands, the conflict between the environmentalists and Fish and Wildlife Service over the "vernal pools" revolves around whether FWS will finally designate 1.67 million acres as "critical habitat" (the goal of the environmentalists) or about 700,000 (the goal of the FWS).

 In October, a federal judge ordered FWS to reconsider its decision to designate the smaller number and make a final determination by no later than July 31.

 Either way, it will be a massive land grab. The smaller option for mud-puddle "critical habitat" is larger than all of Rhode Island (which extends only 670,000 acres).

 Much of the land that would be targeted is concentrated in California's fast-growing Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, where unlike elsewhere in the state, most of the property is privately owned.

 According to the Bureau of Land Management, the government already owns 52 percent of the approximately 100 million acres in California. The Forest Service owns 20 percent, BLM owns 15 percent, the National Park Service owns 8 percent, the state and local governments own 5 percent, and the military owns 4 percent.

 Designating hundreds of thousands of acres of private land as mud-puddle "critical habitat" would effectively shut down development of that land. In its Nov. 18 report, "Draft Recovery Plan for Vernal Pool Ecosystems of California and Southern Oregon," FWS stressed that it envisions the voluntary involvement of landowners.

 But it said: "Protection in perpetuity of these lands includes the amelioration or elimination of the threats in perpetuity, and application of appropriate and adaptive management to assure species survival and recovery."

 What are the threats? In a section of the report titled "Major Threats to Vernal Pool Species," FWS cites even the negative impact of "hiking and bicycling." "Recreational use also may introduce, or facilitate spread of, seeds of invasive plants that could be attached to vehicles, tires or shoes and clothing," the agency warns.

 "Habitat protection can be achieved in a number of ways, including land acquisition, purchase of conservation easements and conservation agreements," says the report. All of which mean no growth.

 The FWS report estimates the full cost of its plan at more than $2 billion.

 But that does not count the opportunity cost to American families. As the Modesto Bee pointed out in a December editorial, the median priced home in California is now $465,000. In November, the Public Policy Institute of California asked 2,502 California adults if they were concerned that the younger generation in their family would not be able to afford a home in their part of California. Fifty-two percent said they were very concerned, and 25 percent said they were somewhat concerned. Twenty-four percent said the cost of housing was forcing them to consider moving out of their region of California or out of the state altogether.

 Using "endangered" mud puddles to shut down development on large tracts of private lands in California will shut down the dream some have of owning a home.

 Rather than let federal bureaucrats or federal judges do that, President Bush and the Republican Congress should rewrite the Endangered Species Act now.