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Saving Rare Critters Squeezes Cities

Helping endangered species used to hurt only loggers. Now, urbanites beware.

It's unlikely that the average urbanite in Seattle or Los Angeles gives much thought to endangered species. Worrying about how the spotted owl or some other critter headed for extinction might impact one's life usually is left to farmers, loggers, and others in remote rural communities.

But from San Diego to the Puget Sound, city dwellers in the West now face economic uncertainties and other life-disrupting possibilities directly tied to government-mandated efforts to save imperiled plants and animals.

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Whether it's the Quino checkerspot butterfly in Riverside County, Calif., or chinook salmon in the Willamette River flowing through Portland, Ore., on-the-edge species in cities undoubtedly will affect how millions of people live and work. Indeed, new plans to protect these animals could determine where houses are built, the way that cities get their fresh water, and how much citizens pay for electricity - all based on the need to protect critical habitat.

"This could force us to change the way we go about everything," Gail Achterman of the Oregon Business Council warned at a meeting of civic and business leaders last week.

In southern California, developers face the prospect of increasing restrictions due a growing number of species on the endangered species list. Accounting for the California gnatcatcher (a small bird) or the Stephens kangaroo rat was one thing. Now the region is also home to 10 of the 16 types of butterfly on the federal endangered species list.

In a common theme throughout the West, the squeeze on such species comes as California cities continue to sprawl into the countryside. The Golden State loses 100,000 acres of farmland each year while adding at least 500,000 more people. And as a result, the Quino checkerspot butterfly, whose plummeting status brought it official listing last year, could cost developers millions of dollars in lost building opportunities once the US Fish and Wildlife Service issues habitat maps later this year.

Oregon's travails

Over the years, Oregon has become known as a leading state in environmental protection. But this has not prevented the steep decline in salmon and steelhead (a trout that migrates between inland spawning grounds and the Pacific Ocean). Dams, logging, commercial fishing, and farming are among the chief threats. But so is urban development, which typically clusters at the mouth of rivers along the West Coast.

In recent months, the federal government has said it wants to protect steelhead and certain species of wild salmon throughout the region. Other salmon species already are listed under the Endangered Species Act, but these latest proposals focus on fish tied to the Puget Sound in Washington State and to Portland, Oregon's major city.

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"This is extremely significant for urbanites," says Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D). "Most people believe this is something that happens in rural areas. The fact is it's coming to urban Oregon."

As a result, says Dean Marriott, Portland's director of environmental services, "We're going to be looking at everything we put out there, from the way the city reviews building plans to planning for future development, including projects close to ... rivers or projects even miles away."

Like other West Coast states, Oregon has until next year to devise a plan for endangered-fish recovery. If it fails, officials warn, it faces federal intervention.

"Make no mistake," says Terry Garcia of the US Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "Extinction is not an option."

Farther north, Puget Sound, with Seattle as its hub, faces similar pressures. In February, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed adding several chinook salmon runs to the list of endangered species. The issue is complicated by the fact that most Puget Sound salmon are caught off the waters of Alaska and Canada - a matter being debated this week by US and Canadian officials. But urban activities are a large factor as well.

"We won't recover salmon until we recover the health of the watersheds, which are their home," said William Stelle of the fisheries service's Northwest region, in announcing the proposed listing.

Meeting that challenge will be expensive and in some ways disruptive for the nearly two-thirds of the state's population that lives in or near salmon habitat.

Protecting salmon

In order to protect streams where fish spawn before heading out to sea, there will be new restrictions on where homes, commercial buildings, and parking lots can be built. Seattle will have to upgrade an old sewer system that sends hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated sewage into area waters when storm sewers overflow. Electric bills and fees for water and sewer service could go up as well.

In all, 13 counties (an area that includes economic powerhouses Boeing and Microsoft) could be affected. The total cost could exceed $1 billion dollars.

Lawsuits by some affected interests (private, commercial, environmental, and tribal) are expected, but everyone concerned acknowledges that something should be done to preserve a species that has become the region's defining icon.

"Life without salmon is unthinkable," Washington State Governor Gary Locke (D) said when the Puget Sound chinook was proposed for endangered species listing. "It's like being told that Mt. Ranier will disappear from our skyline."

There's no doubt that preventing the unthinkable will be costly.

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