Los Angeles Times
November 4, 2005


Officials want to reduce sanctuaries for frogs and other species by
150 million acres.

By Janet Wilson

A century and a half ago, California's red-legged frog graced the
menus of gourmet restaurants in San Francisco and helped launch a
young American writer named Mark Twain, who immortalized the leaping
Gold Rush wonder in his first published short story, "The Celebrated
Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."

Humans have not repaid the favor since, gobbling up not just the long-
legged amphibian but nearly all of its wetland habitat for crops and
homes, threatening it with extinction.

On Thursday, as part of a continued, far-reaching rollback of
protected landscapes for scores of imperiled species around the
country, federal officials proposed cutting 82% of the celebrated
frog's critical habitat.

The House of Representatives has passed a bill that would eliminate
federally protected critical habitat on 150 million acres of largely
undeveloped public and private land. The Senate could act on the
legislation by year's end.

But even without legislative action, the Bush administration is
eliminating critical-habitat designations around the country.
Administration officials say that habitat protections cost landowners
billions and that voluntary plans work better for landowners and

In numerous cases, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and her top
deputies, citing their own cost estimates, have agreed with builders
and property owners that the financial burden of habit protections
outweighed any benefit to species.

The frog is a case in point, they said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service released a study that showed nearly $500 million in costs to
homebuilders for protecting the frog's habitat.

But conservationists say voluntary plans are unproven and should be
used to supplement government regulations, not replace them. And some
economists and biologists say senior Interior Department officials are
deliberately ignoring the economic, scientific and social benefits of
preserving habitat.

Many threatened plants and animals won't make it, biologists say, if
their sanctuary continues to shrink as part of a rollback of habitat
protections under the Endangered Species Act. Among the California
species that environmentalists are most concerned about, if the
rollback continues, are the peninsular bighorn sheep, Steller sea
lions, desert tortoises and northern spotted owls.

The critical-habitat provision of the Endangered Species Act requires
government scientists to identify items such as soil, vegetation,
water quality and temperature that a vulnerable species needs, and
then to map areas where those conditions still exist.

Biologists say society loses when habitat is destroyed. When streams
are encased in concrete, besides dooming creatures such as the frog,
the waterways become sluices that funnel pesticides, battery acid and
household waste into the ocean.

"By preserving the environment for endangered species, you
automatically preserve the clean air that you breathe and the clean
water you drink," said Ileene Anderson, a botanist with the California
Native Plant Society.

Michael Sherwood, an attorney with the environmental group
Earthjustice, said the benefits for society can be substantial.

"You're saving an endangered species for one thing.... But there are
also really tangible fiscal benefits too, in terms of homeowners
having open space and natural land preserved in the neighborhood....
Homeowners will pay a premium, will pay extra to get land next to
preserved open space. Things like that are not taken into account in
the economic analysis, so it's skewed, it's inaccurate."

Patrick Duffy, managing partner of Hanley Wood Market Intelligence in
Costa Mesa, the nation's largest new-home market research firm, said
adjacent open space can bump up home prices from 5% to 15%. But the
premium doesn't show up in the government's economic analysis, he

On the other side of the debate, Paul Campos, general counsel for the
Homebuilders Assn. of Northern California, said having an endangered
or threatened species next door can also add costs for homeowners. In
some cases, protecting species has required special fencing or even
bans on residents' owning cats and dogs.

Unfortunately for wild plants and animals, much of the best natural
habitat also is prime land for housing, farming and energy production.

In the case of the frog, that includes large sections of fast-growing
Contra Costa, Alameda and San Mateo counties that are suffering some
of the most acute housing shortages not just in the state, but in the
nation, Campos said.

After his organization sued, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to
reduce the frog's critical habitat from 4.1 million acres to 737,912
acres stretching from Butte and Calaveras counties in the north to
Riverside County in the south.

The proposal retains about 18% of the original designation, cutting it
entirely in eight counties and adding small amounts in two others.

Similarly, in a case involving another imperiled amphibian in
California, the arroyo toad, top Interior Department officials have
denied 97% of the habitat identified by federal biologists as critical
to the species' survival.

The officials said the cost of protecting it -- an estimated $1.5
billion over the next 20 years -- would unfairly burden California
estate* *developers and water districts.

Much of that habitat reduction occurred after prominent developers --
including Newhall Land and Farming Co., Pardee Homes and Rancho
Mission Viejo -- protested proposed critical habitat on their land.

Interior Department officials excluded all critical habitat belonging
to the three developers.

Some analysts say decisions to cut back on protected land too often
ignore the economic benefits of critical habitat.

Those raising questions include an economist who was hired to prepare
the estimates for the federal government. He said the methodology the
administration is using inflates the costs of critical habitat and
ignores fiscal benefits.

"When you balance a checkbook, you add deposits as well as
withdrawals," said Jason Moody of Economics and Planning Systems Inc.,
a Berkeley firm hired by the Fish and Wildlife Service to work on
nearly a dozen economic analyses, including one for the arroyo toad.

Moody and UC Berkeley economist David Sunding both said they were told
by government officials not to calculate financial benefits of
critical habitat.

Rather, they were given language prepared by the White House's Office
of Management and Budget to insert saying it was not feasible to
"monetize" the benefits.

Julie MacDonald, a top deputy at Interior, wrote in an e-mail that the
department was not opposed to including monetary benefits in economic
analyses "where they can be calculated." But, she added, "We don't
make up numbers where they don't exist."

In the case of another threatened species, the bull trout, which once
flourished in the icy, clear rivers of the Pacific Northwest, an
economist hired by the Fish and Wildlife Service calculated $200
million to $215 million worth of potential benefits from protecting
trout habitat.

They included the revival of the sportfishing tourism industry and
cleaner drinking water.

But any mention of the benefits was excised from the analysis,
according to Fish and Wildlife e-mails obtained by The Times.

At the same time, $200 million to $300 million worth of estimated
costs to ranchers and utility companies were cited to help justify
reducing 90% of proposed critical habitat.

After environmental groups sued, a subsequent analysis found $615
million worth of costs along various rivers and lakes, but again no
benefits were included in the government's accounting.

Last month some habitat was restored, but more than 75% was not.

Fish and Wildlife officials say they can't calculate how much habitat
or wildlife nationwide has been affected by their decisions.

But government records show that in the last three years, new economic
analyses have been prepared as part of critical-habitat decisions for
323 plant and animal species nearing extinction.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, Interior officials
since 2001 have withheld critical-habitat designation on 43 million
acres around the country identified by federal biologists as essential
to species' survival.

Another study, by a coalition of environmental groups, found that 16.4
million acres of existing critical habitat had been voided since
President Bush took office.

About 8 million acres have been protected in voluntary habitat
conservation plans overseen by the federal government over the last

In the case of the red-legged frog, Fish and Wildlife Service field
staff in Sacramento said the habitat cuts were made largely after more
detailed maps were drawn up that eliminated areas that already had
been developed or would be otherwise unusable by the frogs.

Neither environmental groups nor homebuilders appeared satisfied with
Thursday's announcement, with both sides saying they would sue again
if necessary after a final designation, expected in March.

Kieran Suckling, program director for the Center for Biological
Diversity, based in Tucson, said the reductions were a giveaway to
politically powerful homebuilders' groups at the expense of fragile

"The red-legged frog has such a storied past and has been so much a
part of California lore and life, especially in the San Francisco Bay
Area, that the administration is throwing away not just a biology ...
but a part of our history."

Interior spokesman Hugh Vickery said senior department officials had
reviewed the frog proposal and would continue to work on the

As for the criticism, he said, "The policy and approach used in the
proposed rule were consistent with the Endangered Species Act.... The
designation is a proposal, and those who do not believe that it is
adequate have an opportunity to make their views known during the
public comment period."

Robert Stack, executive director of the Jumping Frog Research
Institute in Calaveras County, praised one aspect of the frog
proposal: a voluntary plan in which ranchers would fence off stock
ponds to prevent cattle from trampling frogs.

Still, Stack said the overall cuts in the frogs' protected habitat
were troubling.

The administration's "fundamental goal is just to minimize critical
habitat using whatever means they can," he said. "They're just
grasping at straws to reduce the number of acres because they're
fundamentally opposed to critical habitat."


Red-legged frog

The California red-legged frog (Rana aurora draytonii) has been
protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1996.

It is believed to be the subject of Mark Twain's 1865 story, The
Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."

Until the early 1900s, about 80,000 red-legged frogs were harvested
annually for food in the Bay Area and Central Valley.

Since then, destruction of wetlands and other changes have eliminated
the frogs from more than 70% of their historic habitat.

They are now found primarily in wetlands and streams in coastal
drainages of Central California.

They grow to between 1.5 and 5 inches in length.

The belly and hind legs of adult frogs are often red or pink.

They feed primarily on insects, tree frogs and mice.

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service