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Deal for salamander protection in Sonoma County vineyards builds on permit streamlining effort

The origins of a new public-private solution for the longstanding environmental quandary facing Sonoma County grape growers operating in critical habitat for the endangered California tiger salamander can be traced to recent reforms of county permits for erosion control on vineyard projects.

Under an agreement with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the North Bay Water District will oversee a program in which owners of participating vineyards that have adopted and implemented best practices to preserve or add salamander habitat can avoid being sued by third parties for “incidental take” of the rare amphibian under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The deal also offers participating growers assurance that vineyard operations can continue without additional permits.

The Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Sonoma County population of the salamander as endangered in March 2003. Shortly after, the agency designated a wide swath of the Santa Rosa Plain as critical habitat. That put in place a regulatory system requiring costly studies and special permits for farming and many other activities in the area.

The most affected properties were near the species’ breeding grounds in seasonal wetlands and existing ponds or reservoirs, along with surrounding areas at higher elevations.

The accompanying regulatory requirements have been an extra burden for growers, who’ve seen their ability to make unilateral land management changes constrained to safeguard salamanders.

“A lot of people may not understand that vineyards have a lifespan,” said Mike Martini, an owner of Taft Street Winery and executive director of Sonoma Alliance for Vineyards and the Environment, or SAVE, a group representing about two dozen vintners wanting the permitting process to be streamlined.

Commercial vine viability generally spans 25 to 35 years, Martini said. Then growers may look to replace vines whose fruit yield or quality declines or consumer demand shifts.

More than three years ago, SAVE started work to address the regulatory challenge.

Early last year, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved revisions to the Vineyard Erosion and Sediment Control Ordinance, or VESCO, that included best-management practices for listed species — namely, the salamander. Those included allowance for a targeted vine-replacement technique called “pluck and plant,” where little soil is disturbed.

Those practices became part of the framework for the 31 practices that became part of the safe-harbor agreement the Fish and Wildlife Service and the North Bay Water District reached in June.

The practices vary based on the proximity of a vineyard to a known breeding area. For example, no pumping, for irrigation, frost protection or otherwise, will be allowed from natural or created ponds that have become breeding sites.

Sonoma County Farm Bureau will be helping the water district conduct ground assessments to assess land management practices and habitat for participating vineyards.

Each grower that enters a cooperative agreement with the must submit a report to the water district by Jan. 31 of each year. The district will compile these reports then submit them to the Fish and Wildlife Service within two months.

The cooperative agreements run for 50 years and can be extended. Growers can seek to exit the agreement after 10 years for hardship reasons.

“We actually think this is the way conservation can work best,” said Mike Fris, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sacramento office. “If we can figure out ways to come up with agreements that work for economic development, work for conservation, it's a win for everybody. We love this stuff, and I'd love to do more of this stuff with landowners who are willing to work with us.”

Meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors in July put up matching funds for a scoping phase on a regional conservation plan.

“Once it is developed and implemented, the Habitat Conservation Plan/Natural Communities Conservation Plan will provide a streamlined compliance pathway for projects that would otherwise be delayed by the stringent, complicated, and time-consuming endangered species regulatory approval process,” Bradley Dunn, policy manager for Permit Sonoma, the county planning agency. “This streamlining is achieved by developing upfront mitigation and conservation standards for specific development projects, thereby avoiding time-intensive project-by-project review.”

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before coming to the Business Journal in 1999, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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