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Settlement calls for reconsideration of 74,000 acres of central Sonoma County for 'critical habitat' for protected California tiger salamander

SONOMA COUNTY -- The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity reached a settlement that will reopen consideration of 74,223 acres of central Sonoma County as "critical habitat" for the California tiger salamander, potentially turning back the clock on a several-year local effort to avoid such a result.

The settlement, approved in a Sacramento federal court today, was not unexpected, given the decision by cash-strapped local governments last June to halt implementation of a "cooperative conservation" strategy for protecting the salamander and a few protected plants in central Sonoma County while allowing some construction in the area to continue, according to a wildlife service spokesman and a consultant involved in the creation of the strategy.

"Generally, our attorneys would agree that it made our case a little less vigorous than it could have been," said wildlife service spokesman Al Donner.

The wildlife service, other regulatory agencies and several local governments issued the Santa Rosa Plain Conservation Strategy in December 2005. The wildlife service, under a court order to declare critical habitat for the salamander by the end of that year, decided to suspend that designation pending the implementation of the strategy. The plan called for 4,000 acres of conservation areas on the plain to be set aside for the amphibian and a few protected plants, funded by purchases of mitigation "credits" by builders in the habitat area.

Local governments involved in the implementation committee -- mainly the county of Sonoma and the cities of Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park -- will have to decide whether a critical-habitat designation is something undesirable enough to overcome funding problems, according to Marc Kelley of the Santa Rosa-based firm Kelley Wasem. Such a designation can trigger greater scrutiny of the impact of construction projects on that habitat.

"It's essentially putting the community on notice that if they don't want critical habitat they are going to have to hustle," he said.

Santa Rosa City Manager Jeff Kolin this afternoon said he was not aware of the settlement. He noted that the implementation committee hasn't met for a while and didn't have plans to do so in the immediate future.

Rohnert Park councilman Jake Mackenzie said that the implementation committee likely will get together after the wildlife service republishes the critical-habitat proposal.

"It seems extremely unlikely anything will go forward in the next 90 days," he said.

Mr. Mackenzie said he hoped the mapping and conservation strategy would be retained from the document.

"To think years of work will be abandoned is distressing to me personally," he said.

The settlement directs the wildlife service to submit a proposal by early August for the same critical habitat proposed in August 2005, according to the agency.

That area is bounded by the Laguna de Santa Rosa on the west, Windsor Creek on the north, on the south by Skillman Road northwest of Petaluma and by the hills east of Santa Rosa. The map is posted at http://www.fws.gov/sacramento/ea/Documents/SonomaCTS_pCH_map2.pdf.

Under the settlement the wildlife service must complete its habitat designation action by July 1, 2011, but is not bound by how much land must be designated in the final rule, according to the agency.

Though the critical-habitat acreage to be proposed in the settlement is the same as in August 2005, the conservation and economic situation is different, according to Mr. Donner. First, homebuilding virtually has halted in the southwest Santa Rosa area where several salamander breeding areas were identified, relieving pressure on habitat from development. Second, an interagency mitigation-bank task force has approved a handful of mitigation banks with salamander and wetland credits available for purchase in the past 18 months, relieving a shortage of credits during the building boom that busted in mid-2006.

The wildlife service will be taking new comment on the ecological and economic situation in public hearings to be scheduled after the proposal is republished, according to Mr. Donner.