- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 17, 2002

HONOLULU (AP) In the nation's most sweeping effort yet to keep species from disappearing forever, the federal government may declare more than one-fifth of Hawaii "critical habitat" for 255 endangered plants and two insects.
They include such little-known creatures as Blackburn's sphynx moth and the Kauai cave wolf spider, as well as the Aupaka violet the ultimate in shrinking violets, with only nine plants known to be left on the planet.
In this island state with more unique and endangered species than any other, nature's rare organisms do get respect, but many landowners, hunters and state officials believe the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is going too far this time.
The critical habitat designation would not lock up Hawaii lands for just conservation. But uncertainty and suspicion about how the federal action would play out, including its trigger on additional state regulation and its potential to inhibit state and private conservation, has spawned a fierce debate.
Landowners across the islands are pleading their case and raising fears with the Fish and Wildlife Service as it evaluates the economic effects.
"I know we're going to be sued, no matter what we do," said Paul Henson, the agency's Hawaii field supervisor. "My goal is to build a good scientific record, so when a judge hears the case, he or she will say, 'You did it right and you win.'"
The debate stems from an Earthjustice lawsuit that led to a U.S. District Court order in 1998. It directed Fish and Wildlife to designate the habitat in accordance with the Endangered Species Act.
Ranging from ferns to flowers, the 255 Hawaiian species some with just a few plants left account for a quarter of the U.S. endangered species list. They are not well-known or beloved species but often small, unnoticed plants and creatures that are seldom seen.
Now, they've got the power of federal law as their chief defender.
"In terms of protecting the nation's national heritage, it's precedent-setting" because of the number of species and the vast expanses of land involved, said David Henkin, attorney for Earthjustice.
Activity in critical habitat requires federal review only if it is on federal land or involves federal money, officials say. But landowner attorneys and Hawaii's chief forester, Mike Buck, say state law appears to require that federal critical habitat be designated state conservation land as well. That triggers a stricter regulatory regime that would bar any activity that harms the protected species.
"It's going to have a huge impact," Mr. Buck said.
"Any time any agency of the government says, 'We're going to draw a circle around your land, and don't worry about it,' I don't think anybody that I know quite buys into that," said Dan Davidson, executive director of the Land Use Research Foundation of Hawaii, a landowner association that wants to confine the habitat designations to mostly existing state conservation zones.
The state owns nearly half the 841,015 acres proposed for plant habitat, much of it rugged and unusable or already zoned for conservation. Thirty percent is in private hands, and the military controls a portion. The state also owns most of the 103,626 acres proposed as habitat for Blackburn's sphynx moth and the Kauai cave wolf spider.
Fish and Wildlife will address landowners' concerns "case by case" before settling on permanent boundaries, Mr. Henson said. The agency must consider the economic consequences and is keenly aware of mainland lawsuits accusing it of insufficient attention to that issue.
Environmentalists, however, are wary that economic emphasis could diminish species protection. Earthjustice would "seriously consider" returning to court over that issue, Mr. Henkin said.
Fish and Wildlife botanist Greg Koob said the importance of saving each species goes beyond just its few remaining plants.
"This is a unique life form that's going to disappear off the face of the earth if some protection is not given to it. Extinction is forever," he said. "Biologically, everything is interconnected; every species is important. You lose one and there's a trickle-down effect," with plant pollination and seeds affecting insects and birds, on up the biological chain.
"If we can write off one species, it's easy to write off the next one and the next one. Eventually you've written off too many," Mr. Koob said.
But landowners say there's another side to the story. On the big Island of Hawaii, the Lilioukalani Trust has 340 acres of proposed habitat on the Kona coast. For 40 years the trust has planned a large commercial and civic development there to fund its programs for native Hawaiian children. Now, the land is deemed key to the survival of a nettle and the elusive Aupaka violet.
"Critical habitat will cripple the trust's ability to fulfill its sacred duty," said Thomas Kaulukukui Jr., trust chairman, at a Fish and Wildlife hearing.
Development is not an issue for most of the targeted habitat, said Mr. Buck, administrator of the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife. He finds himself in the odd position of promoting species protection but worrying about huge resources the state would need to manage an expanded habitat range, and about restricting such activities as forestry and hunting of feral animals.
"If something is listed as federal critical habitat, there is an expectation to do proactive things to try and recover these species," such as controlling animals and nonnative plants, he said, but his endangered species budget is only about $2 million a year.


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