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Lynne Plambeck: Condors and confidentiality

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: August 26, 2009 8:56 p.m.
Updated: August 27, 2009 4:55 a.m.

A recent press release touted a success for the Center for Biological Diversity's long-fought battle to release confidential documents on the endangered condor.

Confidentiality agreements that restricted biologists from disclosing important information had been signed with the developer.
It took nearly a decade to force disclosure of information that should have appeared in environmental review documents.

The California condor is a huge issue for Tejon Ranch, yet it is just another massive "new town" proposed just up Interstate-5 from the Santa Clarita Valley.

This magnificent bird is also a big issue for the public, being brought back from the brink of extinction only with the help of zoo breeding programs and large amounts of public and private funds.

Like the eagle, the symbol of our country, the condor became a cause celebre for those concerned about our disappearing wildlife.

Its resurrection from the edge of extinction also became celebrated as an example of successful efforts to save an entire species.

But now that it is reproducing again in the wild, the condor population faces yet another threat - loss of habitat.

Or, to speak more generally, it has fewer and fewer places to live.

Like so many of our wondrous large animals from grizzly bears to mountain lions, even to the much-maligned coyote, the condor needs a range, a feeding ground, places to access water and a place to nest and reproduce.

Every living thing on Earth - from plants to humans - needs these basic essentials.

As urbanization spreads out into wildlands, there is bound to be a clash.

Animals cannot feed among housing tracts. That is only too obvious from the number of complaints heard about coyotes and the rare incursion of a bear or mountain lion into a neighborhood.

When decision-makers review large housing proposals such as Tejon or Newhall Ranch, or even the numerous smaller tracts like Gates Industrial or the recently approved Lyons Canyon near Calgrove, they need complete and accurate information about the wildlife resources.

The California Environmental Quality Act and its federal complement require full disclosure of all such resources.

But a disturbing trend has developed over the last decade.

Developers large and small began to require "confidentiality" agreements from their consultants.

These agreements forbade consultants to disclose information themselves, only the developer could do it.

Everyone can see immediately where such an agreement might lead.

Discoveries of condor nesting areas or previously unknown populations of endangered flowers, as in Newhall Ranch, might go unreported during the required environmental review.

Or, some examples might be disclosed but others quickly destroyed.

Imagine the predicament of biologists who care about both the law and wildlife with the knowledge that the applicant was quickly destroying discoveries made as a result of their surveys.

In fact, just this circumstance occurred on the Newhall Ranch project.

Newhall properly reported the discovery of some populations of the endangered San Fernando Valley spine flower while destroying others.

A concerned botanist was put in the position of reporting this violation and being sued by Newhall for violating the confidentiality agreement, or just ignoring a significant violation of the law.

Luckily, as reported in local papers, the California Fish and Game Department stepped in with a warrant to search the property.

They indeed found examples of destroyed spine flowers.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, at that time in the process of reviewing the Newhall Ranch Specific Plan, frowned on this behavior and took action to protect the endangered plant by requiring a preserve.

A Federal Habitat Conservation Plan for the Species is now proposed.

Many were outraged by Newhall's actions.

Changes in state law to forbid confidentiality agreements were proposed but blocked by powerful developer interests in Sacramento.

Confidentiality agreements still exist as an impediment to full disclosure in environmental reviews.

Should biologists, who obviously entered a field of study because they cared about nature, be put in a position of choosing between doing what is right and required by law or losing their livelihood and facing possible financial ruin due to legal action brought against them by a developer?

Would you be brave enough to do the right thing under the law and for the public in the face of such threats?

It is time to revisit this issue. In our recent comments on Newhall Ranch, SCOPE and others asked that consultants required by Newhall to sign such an agreement be disclosed.

Decision-makers depend on accurate and complete information to find good resource solutions.

Confidentiality agreements are a barrier to the public process and should not be allowed.

Lynne is president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE) and a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Environmentally Speaking" appears Thursdays in The Signal and rotates among local environmentalists.


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