The Clinton administration is attempting to breathe life into a plan to save endangered cave-dwelling insects and two bird species in Texas - part of a federal effort to find common ground in balancing economic and environmental interests.
But some environtmentalists warn it may be setting a weak precedent that could undermine the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA), which is the primary legal tool for protecting biodiversity in the United States.
The act is overdue for reauthorization and now faces a Congress whose Republican majority was elected, in part, for standing strongly for the rights of property owners.
The new conservation plan
The Balcones Canyons Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) would set aside 30,500 acres in Austin, Texas, and surrounding Travis County as a preserve for eight endangered species. Another 150,000 acres conservationists wanted preserved would be open to development.
National publicity given to Austin's quality of life - including, ironically, its beautiful natural surroundings - has boosted the population. But putting in housing subdivisions, roads, and shopping centers for the new arrivals would require bulldozing the habitat. Developers can proceed without the plan, but the cost is so high that construction in the habitat area is essentially stalled.
The habitat has been the focus of seven years of wrangling between real estate developers and conservationists.
Resolving the dispute has become a personal crusade for Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. A success here could be a model for several hundred other efforts getting under way around the country, say Interior officials who have spent six months brokering a compromise.
On Wednesday, they announced an outline plan. So far, 21,000 acres have been acquired for the preserve. It envisions Travis County taxpayers contributing $10 million to buy some of the additional land for the preserve.
The remainder would be bought over time with money paid by developers for the right to destroy habitat elsewhere. An as-yet unnamed committee of environmentalists, developers, and local officials will have 60 days to work out numerous other specifics.
John Duffy, counselor to Mr. Babbitt, called the outline plan biologically sound, administratively simpler, and commercially reasonable.
On hand to offer endorsements were an array of business leaders and, more guardedly, local leaders of environmental groups including the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society, and the National Wildlife Federation.
But some critics questioned why the press conference was held in a small cafe, as if there was something to hide. Attendance was by invitation only. (Asked why, Babbitt's director of communications, Kevin Sweeney, pleaded space constraints and insisted that the cafe was the only room available.) Absent were most of the state capital press corps, all local officials, and other key stakeholders.
``They are concerned that what they're proposing doesn't meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act. They didn't want to hear that,'' says Bill Bunch, one non-invitee.
As the environmental lawyer whose threats of lawsuits over violations of the ESA first brought developers to the negotiating table, Mr. Bunch had been a key player in the effort to establish the HCP from the start. ``They keep shrinking the circle till they get the people who want to do it,'' says Robert Brandes, a landowner who showed up uninvited. Travis County officials, meanwhile, were astonished to learn that taxpayers would have to kick in $10 million.
Too much habitat destruction
Bunch charges that the new plan allows so much habitat destruction that it would be difficult to know whether the endangered species would recover and survive. Another violation of the ESA, he says, is the absence of a secure funding mechanism for acquiring habitat for the preserve. He fears that if Interior holds up the new outline as a model, the GOP majority in Congress will revise the ESA accordingly, weakening the law.
Craig Smith of the Austin Sierra Club agrees that it would have been better to acquire all the land for the preserve first.
But, he says, ``This is our last opportunity to complete protection of the Hill Country [around Austin]. The community is tired of this issue. Momentum is important.''