Critics jump on frog and toad protection plans in California

McClatchy Washington BureauAugust 5, 2013 

— Frogs will face a tough crowd Tuesday at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds in Sonora, Calif.

But the conservative congressmen who will convene to fillet Fish and Wildlife Service plans for protecting some local amphibians, including the Yosemite toad, face frustrations of their own. They have failed, so far, to dislodge the environmental protection law they don’t like.

So get ready for the latest round in a never-ending battle over the Endangered Species Act, a 40-year-old environmental landmark that’s played an outsized role in California politics.

The 2 p.m. forum organized by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., targets federal proposals to designate two types of yellow-legged frog as endangered and the Yosemite toad as threatened under the 1973 law. As part of the designation, Fish and Wildlife Service officials have proposed designating 1.1 million acres as critical habitat for the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog, and 750,000 for the Yosemite toad.

In addition, officials propose designating 221,000 acres in Fresno and Tulare counties as critical habitat for a distinct population of the mountain yellow-legged frog.

Critical habitat is territory that is considered "essential to the conservation of the species" and that “may require special management considerations or protection.” It does not directly affect land ownership or establish a refuge or preserve, and does not require private landowners to undertake special restoration or recovery measures. Nearly all of the critical habitat proposed for the amphibians is already owned by the National Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service. Often, it is in areas already designated as protected wilderness.

Still, the species protection proposal sparks considerable concern among landowners, loggers, ranchers and others who fear the federal hand reaches too far.

“Critical habitat designations will likely cause severe restrictions on land access…resulting in a devastating impact on the local economy,” McClintock declared in announcing the Tuesday hearing.

More broadly, the proposals provoke a deeper debate about government’s place in the natural world.

“The dinosaurs are extinct. Let nature run its course with the frogs,” Coarsegold resident Robert Spinelli wrote the Fish and Wildlife Service last week. “If God wills them to continue to exist, then let it be.”

Spinelli is among the hundreds of individuals who have weighed in with written comments to the Fish and Wildlife Service. At the urging of McClintock and other House members, the comment period originally slated to end June 24 has now been extended to Nov. 18.

The extended comment period will enable opponents and supporters alike to make their case. The hearing Tuesday will do the same, albeit with a slant. Most of the witnesses publicly identified in advance of the hearing are skeptics of the environmental protections.

“It’s almost laughable, the extent to which they have been overreacting,” John Buckley, executive director of the Twain Harte-based Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, said in a telephone interview Monday. “The hearing is to pressure the Fish and Wildlife Service to minimize even the most limited economic effect.”

Buckley, who supports the Fish and Wildlife Service proposal, was not invited to testify. Invited witnesses include Tuolumne County Supervisor Randy Hanvelt, Calaveras County rancher and attorney Kelly Wooster and California Forestry Association Vice President Steve Brink.

The other House member scheduled to attend, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., shares McClintock’s skepticism about the Endangered Species Act. Along with other Republicans and some rural Democrats, they have long sought to limit its application, but politically have struggled to do so.

The Tracy, Calif., Republican who formerly chaired the House Resources Committee, Richard Pombo, lost his seat in 2006 in large part because environmental groups unhappy with his positions spent millions of dollars against him. Lawmakers no longer speak seriously about significant revisions to the Endangered Species Act.

Underscoring the difficulties, a California water bill moved by McClintock last year that would have scaled back some environmental protections sank without a trace in the Senate following its House passage on a largely party line vote. It has not been reintroduced, nor has a bill originally authored by Nunes to dramatically modify a San Joaquin River restoration program.

“You’ve got to have a partner in the Senate,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., said of the stalled House bills.

The Tuesday forum will be held at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds’ Sierra Building, 220 Southgate Drive, Sonora.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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