Rep. Joe Baca (D-Rialto) has a simple political calculus. He is enamored of developers, like the Pharris Brothers of Orange County; those big-money folks whose facile talk about how their projects--golf courses, housing subdivisions, big-box malls--will build jobs and boom the economy; in San Bernardino County, that's political catnip.
He loves golf--what elected official doesn't?
And he enjoys teeing off on endangered species, particularly those that have the temerity to get in the way of his first two loves.
Baca has pledged his troth publicly, too. On August 9th, he wrote Interior Secretary Ken Salazar urging him to delete a number of these troublesome critters from the official list of endangered species because of what he argued was their deleterious impact on local growth and development.
His first shot was a wide-angled blast: "In order to lessen the economic strain on the communities I represent, I respectfully request that the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service consider removing certain species currently found on the Endangered Species List, including the Southwestern Willow Fly Catcher, the San Bernardino Kangaroo Rat, the Delhi Sands Flower-Loving Fly, the Least Bell's Vireo, and the Riversidian El Rancho Verde Golf Course, alluvial fan sage scrub..."
The second was more tightly targeted: "In particular, the San Bernardino Kangaroo Rat and the Southwestern Willow Fly Catcher--listed as endangered in 1993 and 1995 respectively--have caused an enormous amount of harm in my Congressional District. [original emphasis]"
Don't be fooled by these animals tiny size (the kangaroo rat tips the scales around 3 ounces; the flycatcher is a hefty 0.4 oz). Baca assured Salazar that they are heavyweights, solely responsible for the loss of hundreds of jobs, the wasting of millions of tax dollars, and the stalling of an untold number of development projects: "Given our high unemployment rate, increased homelessness and extreme foreclosure numbers for the past few years, economic development in the area is of critical importance to strengthen and rebuild the community."
Given the depths of his concern for the homeless, you might wonder how the construction of a sprawl of McMansions will resolve the plight of those without a place to call home or the capital to secure one. You might wonder too, judging from the county's astronomical foreclosure rate, why Rep. Baca is convinced that building more high-dollar homes, on top of the thousands that lie empty across the Inland Empire, is smart politics or wise policy.
But he does.
And he does so because of his deep affection for golf and developers. Really, that's what he told Secretary Salazar. "The [Pharris Brothers'] Lytle Creek Development Company, owner of El Rancho Verde Golf Course in my home city of Rialto, has been especially been impacted by the continued listing of the Southwestern Willow Fly Catcher and the San Bernardino Kangaroo Rat."
The presence of these two species in and around the proposed project site, he declared, has "stopped a proposed housing development that would bring more than 8.400 residential units and 25,000 new residents to the City of Rialto." Once built, he asserted, would bolster the poorly managed, underutilized golf course, boost the local tax base, and "cause incalculable growth for the city and the surrounding regions." These endangered species had to go.
Their habitat already would have been bulldozed, too, but for what Baca castigates as "frivolous lawsuits stemming from the Endangered Species Act." His would be a serious charge if it was true. It's not.
There is nothing frivolous about raising a legal challenge to any development project that produces a flawed Environmental Impact Report, as this one did; a report that the State of California concluded failed to address critical issues of environmental damage and potential threats to public safety.
There is nothing frivolous about citizens being compelled to call out a city government for its ill-advised and uncritical support a massive subdivision built inside a dangerous floodplain and running above the Glen Helen fault line, the scary repercussions of which these local leaders hoped to sweep under the rug.
That's bad enough. But what can one say about Baca's actions in this case? He is a member of the House Committee on Natural Resources and his congressional website affirms that he has an abiding respect for the environment:
I have the opportunity to protect one of the most treasured jewels of America, our land. The committee oversees the natural and historic heritage of our National Parks and forests including our oceans and wilderness areas. Here, we oversee the Department of the Interior. It is our responsibility to critically analyze how the administration protects our prize possessions and when the administration falters in its responsibility, the Natural Resources Committee forces positive change...a change that will benefit you and your families.
Yet as his letter to the Secretary of the Interior reveals, it is Representative Baca who has faltered in his responsibilities to our prized possessions.
One sign of this is his failure to understand that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) isn't just about providing critical support for distressed species. As well it has provided substantial aid for the human communities living adjacent to those imperiled habitats and vulnerable landscapes.
By preserving the alluvial terrain that the San Bernardino Kangaroo Rat and the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher inhabit--such as those along Lytle Creek that Baca's pals want to turn into dense suburb--the Endangered Species Act provides a critical safety valve. Although I have argued this before, it bears repeating: we should know better than to build in the rough washes and boulder-filled flood basins of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains. But we do not. It is the ESA that safeguards us from ourselves.
Alas, what this crucial law cannot do is to defend the citizenry from a political representative who fears that if "these species remain protected" they will "lower the quality of life and environmental safety of my constituents." Only the voters can do that.
Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday afternoon on environmental issues.
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