Plan to Create an Urban Federal Preserve for the Manzanita Sparks Some Opposition
GUEST POST: By JIM CARLTON, WSJ
SAN FRANCISCO—In order to protect and restore an endangered species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sets aside “critical habitats” in places such as the wilds of Alaska or the pine forests of Louisiana. Now, the agency has targeted a few hundred acres in the heart of this city—including the backyards of some homeowners.
That is drawing fire from some residents who, despite government assurances, fear the proposed protections could constrain land use.
Under the proposal, about 270 acres of land mostly in parks would be designated as critical habitat for the Franciscan manzanita, a low-growing evergreen shrub thought to have been extinct here since the 1940s until a single example was found in 2009.
Proposed Shrub Habitat Sparks Concern
Owen Randall of San Francisco is concerned about a federal proposal to designate a ‘critical habitat’ for the endangered manzanita.
According to Jennifer Norris, supervisor of the agency’s field office in Sacramento, a critical-habitat designation often comes with minimal restrictions on land’s use, except perhaps to temporarily fence off a particular area. When it involves private property, she said, cooperation is voluntary—unless plans by a landowner require federal approval, in which case her agency would need to be consulted. She said an activity that would raise that concern, such as filling in wetlands, would be rare in a San Francisco backyard.
Still, many residents have expressed concern that creating the habitat may curtail recreational activities such as hiking and dog walking. “We don’t have enough open space for all the recreation needs of city residents as it is,” Mary McAllister, a retired-medical school administrator, wrote in a public comment regarding the proposal. “We cannot afford to lose huge swaths of this precious resource to become a manzanita garden.”
The habitat would include about one-third of the 800 acres of undeveloped parklands managed by the city’s Recreation and Park Department. San Francisco has about 3,470 acres of city-owned parkland in total, according to the Trust for Public Land, an open-space conservation group.
Similar debates are playing out across the U.S. The amount of land and water covered by the Fish and Wildlife Service’s critical-habitat listings has jumped 46% since 2003 to an area as big as Texas and Tennessee combined. That growth has come in tandem with increased listings under the Endangered Species Act, according to the service.
In St. Tammany Parish, La., five landowners in February filed multiple suits against Fish and Wildlife for designating 1,544 acres of a timber farm, which sits on federally supervised wetlands, as critical habitat for the dusky gopher frog. The government estimated the designation could cost them as much as $33.9 million, in part, landowners say, because they wouldn’t be able to develop the property. The cases were consolidated into one suit, which is pending in U.S. District Court in New Orleans.
“When your land is designated as critical habitat, they do something worse than take your land—they turn it into a federal preserve,” said Reed Hopper, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a property-rights group representing plaintiffs in the Louisiana case and others.
Fish and Wildlife officials wouldn’t comment on the Louisiana case and say most of the opposition stems from a misunderstanding of what the critical habitats mean.
Just a designation as a critical habitat can be more significant than any resulting restrictions, said Dave Owen, professor of law at the University of Maine. “There could be economic impacts on properties where someone decides not to develop because of critical habitat,” said Mr. Owen, whose analysis found few restrictions occurred on land use, public or private.
After the discovery of the single Franciscan manzanita, the Wild Equity Institute—a group that helps organize environmental causes—helped get the plant listed as endangered, and in September 2012, Fish and Wildlife proposed the habitat area. In June, the agency added 3.2 acres of private property that would abut as many as 22 homes. The city’s Recreation and Park Department supports the idea of the habitat.
Fish and Wildlife’s Ms. Norris said specific plans for its restoration would be made only after the habitat is finalized in a few months. But affected homeowners remain on edge. “If I wanted to terrace my yard completely, I could potentially run into some resistance,” said Owen Randall, a 38-year-old legal-services project manager whose backyard on Marietta Drive extends down a hill included in the zone.
Their objections have gotten the attention of some city officials. “My hope,” said Supervisor Norman Yee, whose district would include parts of the habitat, “is that the wildlife folks will work with the local jurisdiction and property owners to come up with an amenable solution.”
Photos by Brian L. Frank for The Wall Street Journal