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Landowners enticed to aid at-risk species

The red-cockaded woodpecker is one of several species that has benefitted from a safe harbor agreement.   

June 28, 1999
Web posted at: 2:46 p.m. EDT (1846 GMT)


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finalized two rules that remove barriers in the Endangered Species Act that kept private landowners from protecting threatened or endangered species on their property.

In the past, many landowners were reluctant to restore or enhance habitat for threatened or endangered species for fear they would incur added restrictions that would prevent future use of their property.

"Having an endangered or candidate species on your property should be a good thing, something a landowner can be proud of, not something to avoid," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "With the administrative reforms we have made to the Endangered Species Act, such as safe harbor agreements, habitat conservation plans, and candidate conservation agreements with assurances, ranchers, timber companies and other landowners are able to participate in the conservation of at-risk species without the concern that their future plans may be delayed or halted."

These agreements differ from Habitat Conservation Plans in that landowners participating in safe harbor and candidate conservation agreements with assurances are voluntarily willing to help a species recover. HCPs, on the other hand, allow a private landowner to "take" or kill an endangered or threatened species if the landowner agrees to compensate through mitigation practices or minimizing threats to species which remain on the property.

"The real incentives for landowners to do these HCPs is they could potentially be liable for violating the ESA," said John Kostyack, counsel for the National Wildlife Fund.

Under a safe harbor agreement, private or non-federal landowners volunteer to restore, enhance or maintain habitat for threatened or endangered species located on their land. Local conservation agencies provide landowners with technical assistance and assurances that their land, water or other natural resources will not face future restrictions once the agreement is over. The landowner is under no obligation to maintain the restored habitat and can return the property to its original, or baseline, condition when the agreement ends.

"These agreements are when the landowner wants to do something good for a species, but don't want to be tied into it forever," said Cindy Hoffman, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C.

According to Hoffman, each agreement is specific to the species at risk and what the landowner can do to protect the listed species. Hopefully, populations are increased or habitat is restored once the agreement is over, said Hoffman. The landowner faces no penalties once the agreement is over if the habitat is not maintained, the species population declines, or better yet, the species population increases. According to Hoffman, it's better to try to help the species, even if the outcome is not great.

The candidate conservation agreement with assurances helps species not yet listed as endangered or threatened, but considered to be in decline and could be listed in the future.

"The goal of this policy is to work with landowners to turn the decline of a species around in order to make listing unnecessary," said Clark.

CCAAs outline steps landowners can take to conserve a declining species. These might include habitat protection, management or restoration actions such as fencing, stream rehabilitation, controlled burns or species reintroduction.

Landowners participating in this program also receive assurances that no additional conservation measures above and beyond those contained in the CCAA are required and that no additional land, water or resource-use restrictions will be imposed upon them should the species become listed in the future.

"The concept by itself is a good one, but there are two controversial aspects. One, CCAAs are done explicitly to avoid listing a species under ESA. And the assurances lock in the deal even if scientists prove the deal is not benefiting the species," said Kostyack.

According to Hoffman, the assurances remain in place unless an entire species population is knocking on death's door." Then, we might have to step in to take extra steps beyond the agreement."

Landowners are not allowed to use these agreements to preserve a species while destroying other natural resources on their property. "There are bartering capabilities with the Endangered Species Act, but that is not applied to safe harbor or candidate conservation agreements with assurances," said Hoffman.

Currently, more than 35 safe harbor agreements are benefiting species on more than 1 million acres of land ranging in size from 2.5 acres to 825,000 acres. And CCAAs have already saved several species from becoming threatened or endangered.

"The majority of endangered and threatened species occur on privately owned lands," said Clark. "Working with these landowners is critical to the recovery of many of our most vulnerable species."

The final safe harbor and candidate conservation agreements with assurances policies were published in the June 17 Federal Register.

Copyright 1999, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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National Marine Fisheries Service
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Candidate conservation agreements with assurances Federal Register listing
Safe Harbor Federal Register listing
Endangered Species Act
National Wildlife Federation: Habitat Conservation Plans
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:Endangered Species Home Page
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