The European settlement of America set up an inevitable clash between the U.S. economy’s insatiable need to grow and our finite natural environment. Urban sprawl has gobbled up agricultural lands; clear cutting has eliminated habitats and endangered species; and continuing population growth keeps increasing the pressure on dwindling natural resources.
Thurston County became a focal point of this conflict on Friday when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed four subspecies of the Mazama pocket gopher under the Endangered Species Act.
It’s the first federally listed terrestrial species whose habitat includes areas already designated for urban growth. The listing will have a monumental impact on how and where Thurston County will grow in the future.
The listing will also upend local governments’ 20 years of planning for future development under the state’s Growth Management Act and the tens of millions of dollars already spent by cities and the county on infrastructure to support that growth.
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Why? Because the four subspecies are linked to the unique south Puget Sound prairie ecosystem. The prairie soils, and the species they sustain, have diminished over time from roughly 300,000 original acres to about 10,000 acres remaining today.
These soils are not just found in rural areas. They include most of the property within the municipal boundaries of Lacey, Tumwater, Yelm, Rainier, Tenino, Grand Mound and these cities’ urban growth areas.
In other words, the threatened — and now federally protected — gopher lives in many of the same places where the Growth Management Act has directed future growth in population and commercial activity to occur. For example, some of the largest remaining intact gopher populations reside within the city of Tumwater.
In order to protect taxpayers’ investment in public roads, utilities, schools, and private property, Thurston County is developing a Habitat Conservation Plan.
It’s hoped that within two to three years, the county’s Habitat Conservation Plan will provide regulatory certainty for development, protect the gopher and other species, and maintain local control over land use decisions — in other words, out of the hands of Fish and Wildlife.
But, as county director of natural resource stewardship Scott Clark says, “It won’t be easy.”
For one thing, state law provides certain rights to property owners with vested and approved projects. But until a Habitat Conservation Plan is completed, owners of property containing gophers or suitable gopher habitat are subject to uncertainty and risk of federal enforcement. We face an interim period ripe for legal claims on all sides.
And even after the Habitat Conservation Plan is approved, there may be conflicts with the state Growth Management Act if local municipalities change or enlarge their urban growth areas to make up for land set aside for prairie habitat.
The listing has put Thurston County in the difficult position of managing a conflict between federally required species and habitat protection and the need for local economic growth. And the federal government isn’t providing any financial support.
We hope the many competing interests will collaborate constructively and support the county through this difficult process. The listing is final. We’ll achieve a better outcome, if we all work together.