California Developers' Strategy: File Suit Far From Home
On June 8, 2001, The Home Builders Association of Northern California and other development interests filed suit in Washington, D.C., to overturn the decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate critical habitat for the red-legged frog under the Endangered Species Act. The designation protects watersheds in 28 counties, and many of the remaining freshwater streams and wetlands in the San Francisco Bay Area and Coast Ranges. It also includes some of the last remaining wetlands in California, 90 percent of which have already been destroyed.
"This lawsuit is an assault by powerful development interests to pave over the streams and wetlands that provide clean water for Californians and are the last remaining habitat for Twain's frog," said Bruce Nilles, lead attorney for Earthjustice. "The Home Builders have run to the other side of the country to try to persuade a Washington D.C. judge to let their bulldozers roll in California. By intervening, we seek to defend the streams and wetlands needed by frogs and people, and bring this case back to California, into the view of the people whose lives are most affected by the designation -- the residents of California."
A Species in Need of Habitat Protection
"No red-legged frogs remain in all of Calaveras County, or even the Central Valley, where they once flourished." said Bob Stack, Ph.D., director of the Jumping Frog Research Institute. "And only a few small, isolated populations still hang on across the entire Sierra Nevada, where frogs were once numerous. Our objectives in intervening in this case are to prevent this tragedy from happening to the rest of California, and to ensure that this frog will have the opportunity to inspire the young, budding Mark Twains of the future."
Once widespread from Northern California to Mexico, the California red-legged frog has been eliminated from 70 percent of its former range, including the entire Central Valley and most of the Mother Lode streams in the Sierra Nevada it made famous. The remaining populations are found mostly in isolated coastal watersheds, which are under heavy development pressure. The designation of critical habitat helps protect a set of ecosystems needed by the frog for recovery. Critical habitat places restriction only on those activities requiring federal permits or approval from federal agencies, but generally does not impact private landowners to any significant degree. It is nonetheless, an important tool to help balance development interests with the preservation of the natural areas that makes California such an attractive place to live.
"The designation of critical habitat has been falsely portrayed as placing the needs of frogs ahead of the needs of people," said Alan Carlton, spokesman for the Sierra Club, "when in fact it is a golden opportunity to learn how to meet peoples' needs without destroying the rich landscapes and native species existing alongside us. Critical habitat does not stop us from developing land, but it does require us to find an approach that does so in a responsible manner."
An economic study sponsored by the developers, and used to justify their lawsuit against designated frog habitat, completely ignores the many economic benefits of protecting streams and wetlands. Protecting watersheds and open spaces for frogs also helps provide clean water, flood control, and recreational opportunities for millions of Californians.
"The Home Builders study vastly overestimates the costs of protecting the streams and wetlands that the frog calls home," said Peter Galvin of the Center for Biological Diversity. "They also don't account for the benefits of keeping these areas pristine, nor the economic damage that poorly planned development can cause. Furthermore, they forget that most Californians don't want to buy houses built on top of the destroyed homes of endangered species. The critical habitat designation doesn't stop development -- it simply redirects growth to nearby areas that are less important to the frog's survival."
"We can have a strong economy and new, affordable housing, and still protect our natural heritage," agreed Craig Thomas of the Center for Sierra Nevada Conservation.
"Humans need healthy wetlands, streams, and aquatic ecosystems for clean drinking water, just as the frog needs them for a home. Protecting the frog's habitat protects people in the long run," said Deanna Spooner of Pacific Rivers Council. "This icon of California's literary and natural heritage deserves full protection of the ESA, not half-measures."
The California Red-Legged Frog is the largest native frog in the western United States. It was once distributed widely in freshwater streams and wetland habitats on the coast from Marin County to Baja California, and inland in the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada from Redding to Bakersfield. Habitat loss and alteration resulting from human activities as diverse as urban development, agricultural conversion, reservoir construction, grazing, and pesticide use, have combined with the introduction of exotic predators and competitors and over-harvesting (in the early 1900s) to eliminate the frog from 70% of its former range. The red-legged frog has been completely eliminated from the Central Valley and is restricted to a few isolated drainages in the Sierra Nevada, and the Coast Ranges, including the Bay Area. The dominant current threat to the remaining frog populations in the Coast Ranges, especially in the Bay Area and Southern California, appears to be habitat alteration resulting from suburban sprawl.
The red-legged frog was listed as threatened on May 31, 1996. 61 Fed Reg. 25813.
Critical habitat was subsequently designated under on Mar. 13, 2001 (66 Fed. Reg. 14626), under a court order following an earlier lawsuit brought by Earthjustice and the Jumping Frog coalition.