Thurston County commissioners are finally starting to grasp the hard realities posed by a threatened species of pocket gopher. The challenge is harder to shoo away than some believed.
South county residents’ anger about protections for gopher habitat helped elect Gary Edwards and John Hutchings last fall. The two political independents joined the three-member commission in late December, replacing two Democrats who strongly supported environmental protections for air, water and land.
Edwards, a former Republican sheriff with a shoot-from-the-hip style, threatened as a candidate to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to halt the gopher rules.
Hutchings was also very critical of the county’s land-use actions, which have slowed a handful of projects or added environmental study costs.
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After the November election, Edwards and Hutchings backed away from any idea of a lawsuit. But gophers are still on their minds as county staffers keep working on plans to accommodate gophers and development. This includes an interim plan for development in areas with Mazama pocket gopher soils and a longer-term habitat conservation plan, or HCP, to protect as many as a dozen other species. (These range from the threatened streaked horned lark, Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly and to candidates for listing such as the Puget blue butterfly and Oregon vesper sparrow.) and Western gray squirrel
Commissioners had a few work sessions recently to discuss options that can satisfy the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for thousands of south county acres. Over 30 years, the HCP could save millions of dollars, ease the construction of worthy developments, and streamline the entire gopher-mitigation process for individual lot owners who seek to add a barn or build a home.
In effect, the plan could require the county to buy 88 acres or more each year of habitat in rural south county areas as a kind of land bank or hedge against any damage that development in other areas might cause. There are a dozen species in the prairie areas that would benefit from the land bank purchases, according to Brent Butler, director of resource stewardship for the county.
The HCP is a way to head off concerns if those other species, which include a type of butterfly, are listed as threatened or endangered.
Once a plan is enacted, the county will have an easier time issuing permits. The HCP will spare the county and developers from being held culpable under federal law for accidental “takings” or killings of protected gophers.
There is little question that the county’s implementation of interim rules has been controversial and irritating to land owners. Though only 1 percent of the county’s roughly 4,200 building permits a year are affected, a few projects were slowed due to limited county staffing for timely inspections of gopher lands. In some cases, land owners paid high fees to experts or they complained loudly at the prospect.
But mitigating the gopher issue is going to cost money. Costs have been estimated as high as $150 million over 30 years. A portion would be paid by land owners and a portion by the county.
But cheaper options have been developed. Commissioners are now eying a $3.5 million-a-year scenario and a cheaper $2.2 million scenario. The latter options acquire less land and effectively shield far fewer acres from Endangered Species Act regulations.
For the county portion, commissioners could take $1.2 million a year from the Conservation Futures accounts that are already funded by a special property-tax charge that generates about $1.4 million a year. The remaining cost, in that scenario, could be passed on to developers of lots who would pay “mitigation” fees.
Another option is to ask voters to approve an increased Conservation Futures fee. Another option is a real estate excise tax on property sales.
One valid concern from Edwards is that urban areas of the county benefit and also should contribute. Unfortunately, Edwards is still trying to put up roadblocks to taking any sensible action.
He’s been sensationalizing the impacts that wise land stewardship requires. Eager to spread fear, he’s suggested gopher protections now threaten salmon and claims that only rich people will be able to live in rural areas.
During a work session last week, commission Chairman Bud Blake showed he has a firmer understanding that there is a balance to be struck. One might say Blake glimpses the light at the end of the gopher tunnel.
As commissioners learn more, they must rely on science and common sense. They should complete the habitat plan begun by their predecessors. To get that done, they must resist acting like nervous gophers in the pockets of special interests in the development community.