24. Setting the FOX to Guard the Chickens in the 90s

Source: THIS WORLD, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE (reprinted from The Recorder, 8/11/93),
Date: 9/19/93, Title: "Fishy Deals," Author: Todd Woody

SSU Censored Researcher: Tim Gordon

SYNOPSIS: If California is a national trendsetter, as is often said, the rest of the nation had better become aware of the latest environmental trend underway there.

With Governor Pete Wilson's strong support, the California Department of Fish and Game has decided that it can best protect endangered wildlife by turning them over to commercial interests. This privatization of the Department's traditional watchdog role has essentially defanged it.

In brief, California has adopted a new environmental policy where it has turned over the responsibility for protecting endangered species to private corporations and developer-friendly local governments.

One example involves ARCO, the oil company that owns or leases about 500,000 acres stretching from Santa Barbara to the Central Valley. As environmental reporter Todd Woody points out, "Not only is the land a prime oil and gas production area, it is home to more than two dozen rare and endangered species."

Environmental laws normally require a company to obtain permits each time it plans to disturb a protected plant or animal. But under the new program, that is no longer necessary. The solution devised by ARCO and the state agency calls for the company to dedicate 6,000 acres of its land as a preserve to compensate for any habitat lost through oil and gas operations.

But then, in an unprecedented move, the Department of Fish and Game made ARCO a game warden, transferring day-to-day responsibility for protecting any imperiled wildlife to the company. According to the agreement, ARCO can be removed as manager of the preserve only for gross negligence.

Further, ARCO can sell "mitigation credits" to other companies that want to use the preserve to replace habitat they've destroyed elsewhere and, in fact, has already sold some 700 acres worth of credits to three energy companies.

Some department lawyers and biologists have attacked the agreement. One Fish and Game staff attorney wrote that he had "substantial problems" with ARCO's proposal to manage the preserve itself, noting that Fish and Game could not legally delegate that responsibility to others when it could perform such duties itself.

Outraged environmentalists criticized Fish and Game for permitting ARCO to continue existing oil and gas operations on the preserve and to lease land to other companies. According to the agreement, "The department acknowledged that oil spills and leaks might result in the death-called 'take'-of the very wildlife the preserve was meant to protect."

Another case involved the endangered species laws protecting the imperiled Swainson's hawk. While developers usually must acquire land to replace habitat they destroy, and endow a trust fund for its upkeep, Fish and Game eliminated that requirement for the Dana Corp. It allowed the company to build its plant on the hawk's home in exchange for a one-time, no-strings-attached payment of $46,299. State officials acknowledge that no new habitat has been dedicated nor is there a deadline to do so. Environmentalists called this deal "cash for critters."

COMMENTS: Todd Woody is an environmental reporter for The Recorder, a daily legal newspaper based in San Francisco. Woody said that "Mainly because of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's embrace of the concept, The New York Times and other major media have covered the broad strokes of Governor Pete Wilson's biodiversity approach to saving species while permitting development. Although the Los Angeles Times has done more than other major media, scant attention has been paid to the individual deals brokered under this scheme and the subsequent winners and losers.

"For instance, when the state took the unprecedented step of turning over primary responsibility for protecting species on a Central California wildlife preserve to an oil company, only the local media ran stories. And few, if any, mentioned the fact that ARCO Corp. not only would act as game warden but would be allowed to continue drilling for oil and gas on the preserve.

"Similarly, while a few outlets noted the agreement that allowed a truck manufacturer to build a factory on the habitat of an imperiled hawk-focusing on the jobs created-none reported the `cash for critters' component of the deal or the fact that the state was allowing the hawk's home to be destroyed without a deadline for acquiring replacement habitat.

"And the political machinations in the California Fish and Game Department have received little coverage by the networks or papers."

Woody feels that the public needs to know what is happening so that it can better judge whether these deals truly will help preserve the fragile ecosystems while allowing economic development. And he warns of the national implications of this effort. "Given the fact that Babbitt has hailed this approach as a national model and has applied it elsewhere, it's crucial that the public know the behind-the-scenes politics of this concept-at least as practiced in California."

According to Woody, one of the people benefiting from the limited coverage of this issue is Pete Wilson. "As the (California) election year approaches, Pete Wilson has been able to portray himself as a `green governor' who has helped solve some of the more intractable environmental problems facing California. While his approach is indeed innovative, Wilson also has been able to reward some of his top campaign contributors and supporters-including Southern California developers, agribusiness, and oil companies. These interests in turn can also assume the mantle of environmental sensitivity without disclosing the economic and political benefits they reap."