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Posted: Wednesday, December 4, 2002 12:00 am

The federal government's proposed plan for redesignating the critical habitat of the endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy owl released Nov. 26 brought a modicum of relief for Marana, but still left the town and huge swaths of the Northwest tied-up in development regulations.

Environmentalists were also left unhappy by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's draft report, which removed about 22 square miles of privately held land in the Northwest from the 1999 critical habitat designation a federal judge tossed out last year.

The newly proposed designation increased the protected habitat's size from 733,000 acres to 1.2 million acres across Southern Arizona, but much of the land added to the new boundaries was drawn from federal lands and established preserves.

Most of the private land deleted from the proposed habitat map is located along the east side of Interstate 10 between Tangerine Road and the Pinal County line in Marana, according to the report.

Marana, along with Pima County, had taken the brunt of the restrictions imposed by the 1999 designation, which requires any disturbance of the land by a property owner who requires federal permits or receives federal funds to consult with FWS before beginning construction. Almost the entire portion of Marana east of I-10 remains in the designated habitat.

A sizable strip of the land proposed to be removed from critical habitat east of I-10 near Avra Valley Road had been zoned for industrial uses, Marana Assistant Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat said.

"It's taken some areas away from critical habitat and added others. Our biggest concern is the 1-10 corridor and a good portion of that is still in the designation. We are also concerned about anything that would affect the Linda Vista Interchange," Reuwsaat said.

The new habitat map includes the bed of the Santa Cruz River in the area of Continental Ranch where the town has been planning a $29 million bridge and freeway interchange to help connect its southern population center to the Interstate.

Oro Valley Town Manager Chuck Sweet said about 3,600 acres inside the town's boundaries remained in critical habitat, essentially unchanged from the 1999 designation.

Carolyn Campbell, director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, said the redesignation process was "politicized" by developers and others opposed to the habitat protection plan called for by the federal Endangered Species Act.

"These are political boundaries. Developers were lobbying heavily to have specific areas removed. The whole thing is a bit of a shell game in which they added lands that were already protected and removed lands Northwest of Tucson under pressure by development that need the most protection," Campbell said. "We're kind of puzzled by the whole process."

Alan Lurie, vice-president of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association, said he was pleased by the decision to free some of the private land in the Northwest from the designation, but believed it was too small an amount and he was unhappy that the overall protected acreage was increased.

"We know, or at least think we know, that the bird population is about 18," Lurie said. "We're listing 1.2 million acres of land as critical habitat? That's ridiculous. It works out to more than 67,111 acres per bird."

SAHBA, along with a coalition of other building trade associations, filed suit in May 2000 to have the habitat designation vacated on the grounds that it did not take into account the cost of its impact, and sought to have the bird taken off the federal endangered species list altogether.

U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton vacated the critical habitat designation in September 2001, but upheld the bird's federally protected status.

By affirming the owl's status under the federal Endangered Species Act, much of the bird's habitat had remained protected despite Bolton's removing the official critical habitat designation.

The redesignation was accompanied by a draft cost analysis that estimated its impact as being in a range between $70 million to $108 million, with $52 million in costs resulting from the designation alone.

The study indicated the bulk of the costs would be borne by the housing development and mining industries when they seek federal dollars or permits to modify washes and streams or discharge pollutants.

The FWS is required to consider economics when designating critical habitat, but is not permitted to stack the economic impact whether a species needs protection under the Endangered Species Act, said Dale Hull, Southwest Regional Director of the FWS.

"We have some leeway when weighing economic costs versus conservation benefits when designating critical habitat, as long as those considerations don't result in the extinction of the population," Hall said.

Once populous throughout Southern and Central Arizona, the six-inch owl has been isolated to a handful of corridors in southern Arizona.

Surveys documented 41 adult pygmy owls in 1999, 34 in 2000, 36 in 2001 and 18 in 2002, according to the draft redesignation report.

The majority of the birds known to exist are located in the Northwest east of I-10.

The FWS is expected to issue a final report in July that will set the boundaries of the owl's habitat. The service is scheduled to hold a public hearing to solicit input on the designation Jan. 23 at the Leo Rich Theater, 260 S. Church Ave. in Tucson, from 6:30 to 9 p.m.

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