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Foundation aids county in litigation over plover.

Byline: LARRY BACON The Register-Guard

COQUILLE - Coos County commissioners cemented a legal alliance Wednesday with a Sacramento-based public interest law organization to try to overturn designation of 210 miles of West Coast beaches as critical habitat for the federally protected Western snowy plover.

The three-member board of commissioners unanimously approved a motion to sign a memorandum of understanding allowing the Pacific Legal Foundation to represent it in a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which made the 1999 designation.

Officials said the only potential cost to the county would be no more than $2,000 in expenses. As a tax-exempt organization, the foundation does not charge fees for its services

The lawsuit will allege that the Fish & Wildlife Service didn't follow a provision of the Endangered Species Act that requires a thorough assessment of how critical habitat would affect the local economy.

Snowy plovers, small shorebirds that nest in dry sand beach areas, were listed as threatened in 1993 under the act. They number 976 in California, 112 in Oregon and 50 in Washington, according to most recent counts.

About 74 miles of Oregon beaches are listed as critical habitat, most on the south coast.

"All we are asking is a legitimate economic effects analysis," said Commissioner John Griffith, who had pushed hardest for the lawsuit. "That's what Congress intended."

No timetable has been set for filing the lawsuit, but Griffith said he expects it to occur soon. In February, the county filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue.

Commissioners voted Wednesday after hearing more than two hours of testimony for and against the lawsuit. In a crowd of about 75 people, the loudest applause was for pro-environment speakers who opposed to the suit.

Opponents painted the Pacific Legal Foundation as a pro-development organization supported by business interests that has been looking for a public body to carry the torch against plover-related restrictions on development.

"The homebuilders in California found a great big dope in Oregon to file this lawsuit," said Jim Britell of Port Orford, president of the Kalmiopsis Audubon Society.

Britell said the commissioners didn't understand the amount of political heat they will take because of Wednesday's action. Most of the effects of the lawsuit will be felt in California, he said, but no public body there had been willing to risk the bad public relations such a lawsuit will bring.

He said environmental interests "will most certainly intercede" in the lawsuit to protect the plover's interest and an environmental law firm such as Earth Justice or the Natural Resources Defense Council would likely be the intervenor.

Many opponents of the suit said they don't want their county government affiliated with Pacific Legal Foundation, which they characterized as right-wing and anti-environment. They questioned whether the foundation or Coos County would be calling the shots in the county's legal battle.

A Web site for the foundation promotes it as a champion of private property rights, less government and free enterprise. It has worked in Oregon with farming interests in the Klamath Basin battles over whether water rights should be restricted to benefit federally protected fish.

Griffith said the memo gives county commissioners the right to accept or reject potential settlements stemming from the suit.

Some critics said that even though commissioners deny trying to derail the plover's recovery, the lawsuit will give Coos County a reputation for being anti-environment.

"Coos County already doesn't have the best image," said John Jones of the community of Bridge, in eastern Coos County.

Marty Giles of Coos Bay said Wednesday's vote is likely to sully the reputation of the county for a long time to come.

Some opponents of the lawsuit said it could lead to a boycott of the county by a large number of bird watchers and thus have a negative economic effect.

But others said the commissioners were doing the right thing and could head off more government-imposed beach restrictions to protect nesting plovers. Currently, 18.4 miles of Oregon beaches have restricted public access during plover nesting.

"If the federal government gets away with this, we're going to lose everything," predicted Kenneth Rossi of Broadbent.

Lawsuit supporters said rather than restrict people's access to beaches, the Fish & Wildlife Service should be more active in fighting the spread of nonnative beach grass and predators, which are far more lethal to plovers than people.

Griffith and Commissioner Nikki Whitty said the threat of the suit has already had one good effect in that state and federal agencies involved in the plover recovery effort are, for the first time, calling commissioners and seeking their opinions instead of proceeding with virtually no input from local interests.

"I think if we were to pull back at this point, they would go right back into their hole," Griffith said.
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Title Annotation:Animals
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 4, 2002
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