- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2005

When I was a boy growing up in California we called them “mud puddles.” If they grew large enough, grown-ups called it “flooding.”

But now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which enforces the Endangered Species Act, has adopted the bogus poetry of the environmentalist left, calling them “vernal pools.”

The question for the immediate future is whether a federal government controlled by Republicans will allow either bureaucrats or unelected judges to use these “vernal pools” to shut down development on vast stretches of private property and thus help push the American dream beyond the grasp of some aspiring homeowners in our most populous state.

What we are talking about is the stagnant water that often collects in small ditches or low patches of land in California after winter rains. By summer, these puddles and flooded areas revert to clumps of yellowed grass. In dry years, they might never materialize. The FWS’ 593-page November report said: “The duration of the ponding of vernal pools also varies, and in some years certain pools may not fill at all.”

So tiny are some of these evanescent water hazards a kindergartener could vault one in a single bound. “Vernal pools,” says the report, “vary from 1 square meter (approximately 1 square yard) to 1 hectare (2 acres) or more.” But their impact on property rights could be huge.

About a decade ago, environmental groups began court actions aimed at forcing FWS to list as endangered four species of shrimp that live in California’s mud puddles, and to set aside land as “critical habitat” for them. Eventually, FWS listed the shrimp, as well as 11 species of mud-puddle plants.

As of now, the conflict between environmentalists and FWS over the “vernal pools” revolves around whether FWS will designate 1.67 million acres as “critical habitat” (the environmentalists’ goal) or about 700,000 (the FWS goal).

In October, a federal judge ordered FWS to reconsider its decision to designate the smaller number and make a final determination no later than July 31.

Either way, it will be a massive land grab. The smaller option for mud-puddle “critical habitat” is larger than all of Rhode Island (which has only 670,000 acres). Much of the land that would be targeted is concentrated in California’s fast-growing Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, where unlike elsewhere in the state, most property is privately owned.

According to the Bureau of Land Management, the government already owns 52 percent of the approximately 100 million acres in California. The Forest Service owns 20 percent, BLM 15 percent, the National Park Service 8 percent, the state and local governments 5 percent, and the military 4 percent.

Designating hundreds of thousands of acres of private land as mud-puddle “critical habitat” would effectively shut down development of that land. In its Nov. 18 report, “Draft Recovery Plan for Vernal Pool Ecosystems of California and Southern Oregon,” FWS stressed it envisions voluntarily involving landowners. But it said: “Protection in perpetuity of these lands includes the amelioration or elimination of the threats in perpetuity, and application of appropriate and adaptive management to assure species survival and recovery.”

What are the threats? In a section titled “Major Threats to Vernal Pool Species,” FWS cites even the negative effect of hiking and bicycling: “Recreational use also may introduce, or facilitate spread of, seeds of invasive plants that could be attached to vehicles, tires or shoes and clothing.

“Habitat protection can be achieved in a number of ways, including land acquisition, purchase of conservation easements and conservation agreements,” all of which mean no growth.

The FWS estimates its plan’s cost at more than $2 billion. But that does not count the opportunity cost to American families. As the Modesto Bee noted in a December editorial, the median-priced home in California now costs $465,000.

In November, the Public Policy Institute of California asked 2,502 California adults if they were concerned their family’s younger generation would be unable to afford a home in their part of California. Fifty-two percent were very concerned, and 25 percent were somewhat concerned. Twenty-four percent said housing costs were forcing them to consider moving out of their region or out California altogether. Using “endangered” mud puddles to bar development on large tracts of private lands will shut down some peoples’ dream of owning a home.

Rather than let federal bureaucrats or federal judges do that, President Bush and the Republican Congress should rewrite the Endangered Species Act now.

Terence P. Jeffrey is a nationally syndicated columnist and editor of Human Events.

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