Hearings - Testimony
 
Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, And Water
Endangered Species Act and the Roles of States, Tribes and Local Governments
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
 
Mr. Michael Pasteris
Executive Director, Forest Preserve District of Will County, National Association of Counties

Chairman Chafee, Senator Clinton and distinguished members of the Subcommittee, I thank you for holding today’s hearing on the roles of states, tribes and local governments in implementing the Endangered Species Act (ESA). I am the Executive Director of the Forest Preserve District of Will County, Illinois. In that capacity I represent the National Association of County Parks and Recreation Officials on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Counties (NACo), on whose behalf I am appearing today.

Will County is located in northeastern Illinois, south of Cook County. The county seat is in Joliet, which is located approximately 40 miles southwest of Chicago on the Des Plaines River. Forest Preserve Districts are special units of county government in Illinois. Our statutory mandate is to preserve natural and cultural resources within the county for the education and recreation of the public. The Forest Preserve District of Will County currently owns or leases approximately 18,000 acres – 7,000 of which are actively managed to conserve natural resources. These include the habitats of – or known populations of – seven threatened and thirteen endangered species listed under the ESA. We also provide habitat for dozens of species listed as threatened or endangered under Illinois law. As you know, the ESA was enacted in 1973 with the promise that we can do a better job of protecting and conserving our nation’s resident species and the ecosystems that support them. Today, over thirty years later, on behalf of the Nation’s 3,066 counties, I bring that same message back to this Subcommittee – we can, and must, do better. We have learned many lessons over the past three decades about how and what can be done to protect endangered and threatened species and it is time to update and improve the ESA to reflect those lessons.

NACo has identified several key elements that should be considered as Congress considers legislation to update and improve the ESA: First, counties should be full partners in all aspects of implementing the ESA. Our experience in Will County bears this out. For the last several years we have been actively engaged in efforts to preserve the habitat of the endangered Hines Emerald Dragonfly which is found in only two counties nationwide – one of which is Will County. In our county its habitat is the thin soil on top of bedrock supported by groundwater seeps along the bluffs of the Des Plaines River. County Forest Preserve staff were part of the team formed to develop the Hines Emerald Dragonfly recovery plan. Because of our close connection to the local communities we have been able to facilitate effective communication strategies with adjacent private landowners and municipalities about the habitat needs of the dragonfly. Our efforts have led a number of them to reduce their groundwater use voluntarily and to adopt “best management practices” for storm water management within the watershed. Similarly, we have been invited to serve on the team developing a recovery plan for the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, a species listed as threatened under the ESA and which is in decline. In Will County the rattlesnake is found in the open wet woodlands along Plum Creek, on Forest Preserve District land. Even while the recovery plan is in development the District has been acting to improve the rattlesnake’s habitat using Section 6 funds from Illinois Department of Natural Resources and discretionary funds from the Fish and Wildlife Service. This model of cooperative conservation partnership is an important key, we believe, to setting threatened and endangered species on the path to recovery. Unfortunately, it is a model that is not always emulated. We believe that the ESA’s provisions for federal, state and local communication, cooperation and collaboration could be strengthened so that the positive partnerships currently benefiting the Hines Emerald Dragonfly, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake and the citizens of Will County can be reproduced around the country.

Sonoma County, California provides another example of how local participation in ESA decision making has aided efforts to recover threatened and endangered species. With the final listing of the California tiger salamander in March 2003, Sonoma County was jolted by the realization that, given the location of salamander habitat, much of the county’s entire economic future was in serious jeopardy. This is because much of the salamander habitat is within a voter approved urban growth boundary. The listing had the potential to affect affordable housing, critical transportation infrastructure, expansion of one of the city’s main sewage lines which already was approaching capacity, and the sub regional water recycling system.

Because the US Fish and Wildlife Service was short of personnel, consultation on individual projects, as well as field survey requirements were lengthy and, at times, inconsistent. The Service recognized that, in order to deal with Sonoma County’s unique challenges relating to the salamander, a different and more collaborative approach was required. This led to the creation of the Santa Rosa Plain Conservation Strategy Team in March of 2004.

In seventeen months, this collaborative team made up of affected public and private stakeholders has developed a cooperative conservation plan that will lead to conservation and recovery of the California tiger salamander and at the same time a consistent process for the approval of projects that are important to the economy of Sonoma County. It provides identified mitigation requirements that will address the biology of the species, and provides certainty for stakeholders to move forward with their projects.

The willingness of the Fish and Wildlife Service to engage in a cooperative conservation plan that supports the President’s Executive Order on cooperative conservation issued in August of 2004 has resulted in a successful partnership that is directly benefiting the welfare of the salamander while preventing serious financial detriment to Sonoma County.

Both Will and Sonoma Counties’ experience demonstrates the great potential for a new collaborative locally-driven approach to the conservation of endangered species. We believe that provisions for to encourage it – and to remove barriers to it – should be built into the ESA.

Second, NACo believes that science must be used more effectively in all aspects of implementing the ESA. I recounted for you the initial success of our effort to encourage Will County private property owners and municipalities to reduce their pumping of groundwater in order to improve the Hines Emerald Dragonfly’s habitat along the Des Plaines River. This effort was made possible by the fact that we had in our hands the results of a unique hydrological study which traced the map of the aquifer which feeds the habitat. This information enabled us to persuade groundwater users to voluntarily reduce pumping in ways that will improve the habitat. However, we were only able to afford the study because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers happened to have money available from penalties paid by a local party in violation of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Obviously, essential information should not be available only to those communities “lucky” enough to have large Clean Water Act violations in the neighborhood. We know, by our own experience, that local governments and their citizens want to do the right thing to protect threatened and endangered species, but we need to take action based on good information. Too often, actions are prescribed by the Federal government on the basis of a scientific record that is incomplete and unpersuasive to all the stakeholders. We believe that a major investment needs to be made in gathering and interpreting data in a way that is open and transparent so that it can withstand the scrutiny of both the scientific community and can command the respect of the public.

Third, NACo believes that the ESA could be strengthened and improved by creating more opportunities for states and local governments to encourage and facilitate conservation measures. Again, we believe that local people want to do the right thing, but more often than not they lack the tools to get the work done on the ground. There is so much more that Will County could do to protect and enhance the habitat, and thereby the populations, of threatened and endangered species and species of concern, if we only had funding available. If the goals of the ESA are indeed a national priority then the burden of meeting them rests with Congress. Counties stand ready to implement sensible strategies at the ground level, but it is simply unjust to expect all the costs to be borne by our local property tax payers.

Ultimately NACo believes that environmental values must be balanced with socioeconomic values to achieve a policy which results in a high degree of environmental protection while also preserving and enhancing local community sustainability. County officials and their constituents are as keenly aware of the historical, economic and aesthetic values of their local environment as they are certain of the need to prepare for a sustainable future to assure the viability of their communities. We look forward to being your partners “on the ground” as we work toward these common goals.

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