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STICKING THEIR NECKS OUT GROUPS SAYS TRACK MAY HURT TORTOISES.

Byline: Jim Skeen Staff Writer

CALIFORNIA CITY- Two conservation groups filed a lawsuit against the federal government over a proposed Hyundai auto test track, saying environmental reviews were inadequate and the track could harm desert tortoises and Mohave ground squirrels.

The lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated federal environmental laws when it approved permits for the test track in January without a full analysis of its impact on desert habitat.

The lawsuit also criticized a mitigation plan in which Hyundai is buying more than 3,300 acres to be set aside as habitat in exchange for developing the 4,500-acre test track site, now under construction.

``We really think the whole process was badly flawed,'' said Daniel Patterson, an ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. ``Our position is they should not be blading the habitat until these issues are cleared.''

The area is home to the desert tortoise, listed as a threatened species by federal regulators after disease and habitat destruction decimated its numbers in the 1980s, and the Mohave ground squirrel, listed as threatened by the state.

Patterson said the groups are not trying to stop the project, but said they want their concerns addressed before work is allowed to continue.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman said the agency had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment.

Hyundai is reviewing the lawsuit, company spokeswoman Toni Honsowetz said.

``Hyundai is highly sensitive to its obligations to protect and preserve the environment,'' Honsowetz said.

The $50 million test track, which will be used to test Hyundai and Kia cars and trucks, is being built north of Highway 58 about eight miles east of Mojave.

The project is to include a 6.4-mile oval track, a vehicle-handling course inside the oval track, a paved hill road and several special-surface roads. A 30,000-square-foot complex for offices and indoor testing will also be constructed.

The proving grounds area is expected to employ about 40 to 50 people.

While California City was not named in the lawsuit, municipal officials expect they will become involved in the litigation. The city and Hyundai filed for the federal permits jointly.

City Manager Jack Stewart said the project has followed the appropriate federal and state environmental laws.

``We feel we're in full compliance,'' Stewart said. ``We don't feel we've done anything wrong.''

Mayor Larry Adams said mitigation measures for the project will probably cost Hyundai about $5 million, including contributing $1.5 million to an endowment fund for desert tortoise protection, the purchasing of the conservation land, and the on-site efforts, which include having a biologist on hand at all times during construction and the construction of a fence to keep tortoises from construction areas.

``Hyundai/Kia has been particularly good about doing things the right way and the slow way,'' Adams said. ``These groups are out of line.''

The conservation groups said hibernating tortoises within the construction zone are being taken out of their burrows and boxed into artificial burrows while they wait for relocation to an as-yet-to-be-determined place in early April.

This handling of tortoises stresses the animals, increasing the chances of illness and death, the groups said.

While up to 20 tortoises may be removed from this project area, an unknown number of juveniles and eggs will be destroyed because they are nearly impossible to locate during hibernation, the groups said.

Jim Skeen, (661) 267-5743

james.skeen(at)dailynews.com

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 20, 2004
Words:590
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