Protection With Teeth

Pima County continues to pursue its behind-schedule habitat-conservation plan

As it stands now, a sweeping conservative revolution could turn Pima County's Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan (SDCP) into a useless document, rather than the popular vision on how to both develop in and protect the desert that it is today.

Carolyn Campbell, a local environmentalist who helped craft the county's growth and preservation guidelines, says she fears that the only reason the plan has remained relevant is because the plan has always had the necessary three votes of support on the Pima County Board of Supervisors.

Campbell's worries, however, may subside, thanks to a new habitat-conservation plan that could give the SDCP some teeth.

As executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, Campbell has been part of the team responsible for drafting the county's Multi-Species Conservation Plan (MSCP) over the past eight years.

The SDCP is not an ordinance, but a set of policies the county uses to look at development, growth, endangered species and historic preservation. The county's Multi-Species Conservation Plan—which is still in draft form—would back up the SDCP vision with a permit process through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"The coalition has been saying for years that we need to institutionalize these policies," Campbell says. "Once this becomes a contract between Fish and Wildlife and the county, it will become institutionalized."

Proponents of the MSCP look to the days before the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, when the endangered pygmy owl was discovered in the vicinity of a development, leading to a tussle between environmentalists and developers. Although the owl was delisted in 2003, there are now more than 40 endangered animals and plants identified as part of the MSCP that would need to be considered in the future by developers.

The goal of the MSCP is to ensure that development activities comply with the Endangered Species Act. According to Julia Fonseca, of the Pima County's Office of Conservation, Science and Environmental Policy, it's also a way to make sure something like the pygmy owl controversy doesn't divide the region again, by protecting and monitoring desert species that are endangered, and offsetting any harmful effects that development and growth might have on a particular species.

The MSCP, however, is not an anti-development policy. Fonseca says her office has worked closely with the development community to provide landowners with assurances that they can indeed build—even in an area where endangered species have been identified. If approved by Fish and Wildlife, the MSCP will allow local developers to go through the county, rather than the federal government, for Endangered Species Act-related permits, saving builders time and money.

"It provides developers some level of certainty," Fonseca says, "and at the same time, offers further protections for endangered species through required monitoring."

A draft of the MSCP was expected to go to Fish and Wildlife late last year, after changes were made based on the public-comment period that ended in February 2009. But additional concerns brought up by environmentalists and developers have held up the process, although Fonseca says the plan is expected to go before the Board of Supervisors within the next two months.

"But most of the hard work has been done," she says, referring to the development of the SDCP, the purchase of open space through the county bond initiatives, and the work her office has done on the MSCP for eight years.

Once the plan is turned over to Fish and Wildlife, it could take a year before the county formally receives approval, because the MSCP will go through another layer of public comment with the federal agency, Fonseca says.

Campbell says her organization filed additional comments with the county prior to the new April 2 deadline. In particular, the coalition asked the county to bring all necessary departments into compliance with the SDCP and the MSCP. The Planning Department is often the only county department that considers the SDCP when it works with a developer on a project, and Campbell says other departments (such as those dealing with flood control and transportation) need to consider SDCP and MSCP policies before issuing permits.

Campbell says the coalition is also concerned about how the MSCP addresses cattle-grazing. As part of the SDCP, the county bought more than 130,000 acres of ranch land, which is leased out for grazing. Some environmentalists have questioned whether grazing is good for the land; the county responds that the SDCP supports buying the ranches to maintain ranching as a viable economic lifestyle in Pima County.

"It needs to be addressed," Campbell says.

David Godlewski, the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association's government liaison, says his organization filed additional comments that address homebuilder concerns, like asking the county to better explain how the project is going to be administered.

"It isn't clear who is eligible and who is not (for the Fish and Wildlife permit)," Godlewski says. "It is our hope that this provides a framework for how the county approaches development and endangered-species issues ... but there needs to remain some flexibility for those who want to participate or opt out, and how that can happen isn't clear right now."

Godlewski says he expects to meet with county officials for more clarification within the next month.

"What the county is trying to accomplish is very unique. No other county is doing this, but right now, we are uncertain what this means for the homebuilder. There are just more questions that need to be answered," he says.

Sadly absent from this final part of the process is Maeveen Behan, the director of the county's Office of Conservation, Science and Environmental Policy who died in November after a year-long battle with cancer. Behan was honored on Nov. 3, 2009, when the board of supervisors named the 1 million acres of county-owned open-space properties the Maeveen Marie Behan Conservation Lands System. The property was acquired by the county with $174 million in open-space bonds as part of the creation of the SDCP, which Behan worked to create.

"She was really the drafter, the glue ... and it is very sad she is not around," Campbell says.

However, Campbell says the process is moving forward.

"We're excited and pretty pleased. It feels like we're tying ribbons at the end," she says.

The originally posted version of this story had "three Democratic votes" in the second paragraph. However, Carolyn Campbell insists that she never made a reference to party affiliation, and that, in fact, all five current supervisors have been supportive of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

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