Alabama's normally quiet coastline is receiving national attention with the recent decision of a test case under the Endangered Species Act. Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, on behalf of the local Sierra Club chapter, has just won a lawsuit challenging two "Habitat Conservation Plans" (HCPs) that allowed luxury resorts and condominiums to destroy fragile, rolling white dunes that are habitat for the highly endangered Alabama Beach Mouse.
The court decision strongly criticizes the Fish and Wildlife Service for approving the condo developments. Calling the plans "devoid of any rational basis" and relying on "insufficient, inadequate and out of date data," the court ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a new scientific analysis and require better mitigation.
"The government put on a blindfold when it approved the condos smack in the middle of endangered species habitat," said Margie Welch, former chair of the Alabama Chapter of the Sierra Club. "These Habitat Conservation Plans were habitat destruction plans, crushing habitat and killing critically endangered species. The court's decision is good for species and good for our community.
The federal lawsuit in the Southern District Court of Alabama (Sierra Club v. Babbitt) challenges two Alabama HCPs for "grossly insufficient" science. The plaintiffs, represented by the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to revise the plans. Because construction is already underway, the plaintiffs did not ask for an injunction stopping the condos.
"At issue in the Sierra Club case is the lack of scientific information about the impacts of the condo developments on a once pristine dune ecosystem and the wildlife that lives there," said Eric Huber, the lead attorney from Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. "Located in the middle of the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, the high-density luxury resort and condominiums are expected to bring thousands of people into the delicate dunes," he continued. "Bulldozers have already razed dozen of acres of fragile dunes for several 16-story condominium building, crushing and entombing an unknown number of animals."
Now, however, developers must provide adequate funding and acquire other beach mouse habitat and preserve it to replace what they destroyed.
The legal victory sets a national precedent for development plans under the Endangered Species Act. The first of its kind, the case is expected to influence future plan negotiations between developers and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"Maybe now the Fish and Wildlife Service will be at the table, rather than under it," said Heather Weiner, ESA Policy Analyst for Earthjustice. "In the last few years, hundreds of HCPs have been approved without regard to science or needed mitigation. It's about time for that to change," she said.
· Our nation's wildlife -- especially endangered and threatened species -- are caught in a downward spiral of habitat destruction and government inaction. Scientists have been telling us for years that our nation is facing a dramatic increase in extinction rates. Now they are raising the alarm about habitat conservation plans (HCPs) -- these plans are too often based on faulty science. As a result, HCPs are pushing species closer to the brink of extinction.
· Rather than slow habitat loss, the government is approving a tidal wave of development permits that overwhelmingly ignore the recommendations of scientists. Over 225 "incidental take" permits have been authorized and another 200 are pending approval. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, these permits (also called HCPs or Habitat Conservation Plans) will cover about 27 million acres of wildlife habitat in the U.S. and more than 300 endangered and threatened species by the year 2002.
· On behalf of the Alabama citizens and the Sierra Club, we sued the government to change two of the most egregious permits. Our lawsuit, Sierra Club v. Babbitt, challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to steamroll over the pleas of its biologists and allow resort and condominium development smack in the middle of endangered species habitat on the fragile dunes along Alabama's Gulf Coast.
· The public is starting to take notice. When the Atlanta Journal and Constitution first reported on this lawsuit in April of 1997, few people knew about the scientific problems with endangered species permits throughout the U.S. Since then, articles in Science magazine and the New York Times have drawn some attention to this issue. Now Congress is deciding whether to enact a bill to improve these permits or a bill that makes them even worse.