Feds release cost estimates for critical habitat

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday released an analysis of the estimated costs for the proposed critical habitat for 135 plant and animal species in Maui County.

The Draft Economic Analysis projects that the proposed designation will cost between $115,000 to $125,000 from 2013 to 2022.

The proposed critical habitat would cover 271,062 acres of privately owned and state, federal and county lands. Approximately 47 percent of the area is already designated for listed species.

Among the 135 species, the service proposed 40 of them for the endangered species list.

Kenneth Foote, information and education specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that the release of the analysis is in conjunction with the reopening of the proposal to the public.

“We’re really just encouraging public comment, right now,” he said of the public hearing to be held by the service. The proposal was open for comment after its initial release for three months, but the current period will be open for 30 days. “We’re trying to get the word out and get the public to discuss the whole concept of the rule and how it applies to them, and explain the (analysis).”

The designation of a critical habitat provides regulatory protection for threatened and endangered species living within its boundaries, according to a press release sent last week. Federal agencies are required to consult with the service to ensure that their actions are not likely to destroy or adversely modify critical habitat.

Christa Russell, assistant field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Candidate Conservation & Listing Program, said that consultants for the proposal looked at potential economical impacts, including current and future development projects, renewable energy projects, and farming and grazing activities.

The service estimates that approximately $100,000 would be the cost to offset development projects, primarily the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope expansion atop Haleakala and the Honua’ula development project in South Maui. The remaining costs would offset energy projects and other implications over the 10-year period.

Private landowners, who own 53 percent of the land for the proposed rule, are wary of the designation for legal and financial reasons.

In the analysis, the critical habitat is divided into two districts: conservation and agricultural. Service representatives acknowledge that some farming and grazing may occur within the conservation district on Maui but note that the majority of those activities occur in the agricultural district. The analysis also suggests that much of the critical habitat area is “most likely unsuitable for development, farming, cattle grazing, or other economic activities due to the rugged mountain terrain and remote location.” As a result, there is little overlap between the two land districts.

However, farmers and ranchers are concerned that critical habitat designation on ranches within the agricultural district will cause the state to reclassify these areas as conservation district.

According to the Hawaii Revised Statutes Chapter 195D, which was included in the analysis, “the Department of Land and Natural Resources shall initiate amendments to the conservation district boundaries . . . in order to include high quality native forest and the habitat of rare native species of flora and fauna within the conservation district.”

If land owned by farmers and ranchers is reclassified within the conservation district, owners may be subject to additional permitting requirements and restrictions on the use of their land.

Comments from the Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council were included in the analysis and expressed concern over potential economic impacts, saying they are “direct and will harm our properties, our businesses, and our livelihoods.”

“Despite the lack of intent of the service, state, or county to preclude future land uses in critical habitat, we do recognize that critical habitat designation may affect land values,” the council said in comments in the analysis.

The council foresees two potential burdens due to reclassification: future lawsuits and pressure from environmental groups to reclassify agricultural district lands; and land value decreasing due to the perception of uncertainty for future land use.

While the analysis reports that the potential reclassification of agricultural district lands would have major consequences on the values of those lands, its likelihood is still unknown.

Russell and Foote said that representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council have remained in contact since the beginning stages of the proposal.

Keith Unger, land issues chairman of the council, said the service has been receptive in terms of communication, and its last meeting – late last year – was positive.

Unger and fellow farmers and ranchers are still wary though, of federal agencies and their overriding power to reclassify lands.

“There’s a lot of education that needs to be discussed,” he said. “A lot of times they don’t understand where we’re coming from, and a lot of times we don’t understand where they’re coming from. . . . It was a good meeting, but we still have those concerns.”

The service said it is still considering the exclusion of 40,973 acres of private land from the proposed critical habitat. Much of this land is overlapping territory between the two districts, and some areas already have pre-existing conservation efforts in place.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will hold an informational meeting from 3 to 5 p.m. Feb. 21 in the Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center multipurpose room. The meeting will be followed by a public hearing from 6 to 8 p.m.

For more information and to view the full draft economic analysis, go to www.fws.gov/ pacificislands.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.