Deal reached to protect watershed in most rapidly developing area in California

Conservation groups, Roseville developers reach agreement to protect wetlands, grasslands in Placer County -- most rapidly developing area in California...

SACRAMENTO, CA, April 11, 2005 (PRNewswire) - Defenders of Wildlife and Butte Environmental Council announced an agreement with federal agencies and local developers that will ensure extensive protections for increasingly rare vernal pool wetlands within Placer County. The settlement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, and development companies 1600 Placer Investors and Roseville/Fiddyment Land Ventures sets an important precedent for construction projects within California's rapidly urbanizing Central Valley and is an encouraging example of what can be accomplished when developers and conservation groups work together to address common problems.

"Today's agreement signifies just how successful we can be when local stakeholders work together to achieve a common goal." Kim Delfino, director of California Programs for Defenders of Wildlife, added, "We hope that future developers will look at this agreement as an example of how local stakeholders should be working together early in the development process to preserve and protect our national wildlife and wild lands."

The vernal pool grasslands intended to be protected by this agreement fill with water during fall and winter rains, providing vital habitat for a wide range of plant and animal species that often exist nowhere else in the world. These unique wetlands and surrounding grasslands were historically found throughout most of California's Central Valley and southern California coastal areas, but independent scientists now estimate that more than 90% of this habitat has been destroyed. Reflecting this loss, much of the remaining habitat, including the land at issue in this case, has been designated under the Endangered Species Act as "critical habitat" for two endangered species found nowhere else in the world -- vernal pool fairy shrimp and vernal pool tadpole shrimp.

"This settlement accomplishes what the Fish and Wildlife Service should have done two years ago -- securing mitigation from this project that would promote recovery of grasslands rather than managing them toward extinction," said Barbara Vlamis, executive director of Butte Environmental Council. Vlamis also added, "Maybe if development has to pay the true costs of destroying what little remains of California's endangered vernal pool grasslands, it will encourage developers to build within existing urban boundaries instead of obliterating our last remaining open spaces."

Key points of the settlement include:
* Establishing a system for ensuring that for every acre of vernal pool critical habitat that is developed, two are purchased for conservation purposes.
* Requiring developers to purchase mitigation properties prior to development, including three key Placer County parcels totaling 1,084 acres within the area designated as critical habitat and directly in the path of future development.
* Providing funds to the Placer County Land Trust for acquisitions and easements of at least 1,000 acres of vernal pool grasslands within the next five years.
* Future acquisition of an addition 3,835 acres of wetlands and grasslands critical habitat -- all within Placer County.
* Funding of two studies addressing the cumulative losses of vernal pool grasslands within the Central Valley and analyzing the biological viability of the current practice of using small preserve areas surrounded by development -- for the destruction of larger intact vernal pool grasslands.
* Requiring federal agencies to incorporate terms of the settlement into their approvals for the project, setting an important precedent for future development in Placer County.

The Westpark/Fiddyment Ranch project is part of the West Roseville Specific Plan, which was challenged earlier for violating the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) due to air, water and traffic concerns. The parties to that suit announced a settlement in August 2004 in which a community benefit fee program was created to secure future land protection. The settlement announced today comes after Defenders and Butte Environmental Council filed a federal lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act against the project because it would have eliminated thousands of acres of vital habitat, an issue not addressed in the CEQA litigation.

"Our settlement agreement significantly strengthens the CEQA settlement agreement by 'front-loading' the protection of thousands of acres of vernal pool grasslands within the first five years of the development project instead waiting another 10 years," stated Delfino. "It also ensures that the agreement will be consistent with efforts to recover endangered vernal pool species."

The agreement was entered into 30 days ago, but due to a gag order, the announcement had been delayed until today.

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