Big Greens Ask that Tejon’s Condor Gag Order be Lifted

By Patric Hedlund

Two environmental groups broke ranks last week with a pact to stay silent while Tejon Ranch Company races to build Tejon Mountain Village within critical habitat of the endangered California Condor.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club, two of five “big green” groups to join the Tejon Ranch Conservancy pact in 2008, wrote a letter June 29 urgently requesting that the developer and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) release documents kept secret for 10 years.

The developers sued the FWS in 1997 to prohibit scientists from releasing the endangered California Condor back into its critical habitat on or near Tejon Ranch. In 1999 Tejon Ranch Company won a judge’s gag order to hide the legal negotiations from public view.

The developer’s lawsuit is still active, called “a gun to the head” of the FWS as the corporation seeks a 50-year incidental take permit from the agency. The permit is a guarantee from the government that the company will not be held liable if condors are injured or killed as a result of development activities.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD—which is not a party to the conservancy pact), appealed to the Obama Administration in April 2009 for assistance in securing release of the secret documents during the public comment period for the 50-year take permit. On June 11 the CBD served a mandatory 60-day notice that they will sue the FWS for access to the secret files. The public comment period closed on July 7 without the files being released.

Then on July 29, less than two weeks before CBD’s suit was to be filed, the letter addressed to Robert Stine of Tejon Ranch from the two conservancy partners said: “We were recently dismayed to learn of a dispute over the release of public documents relating to a lawsuit filed by TRC against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in 1997.

“It’s our understanding that the documents sought include information that FWS has received from TRC regarding California Condors on the Ranch, and communications between TRC and FWS regarding the condors’ use of the Ranch.

“…[O]ur concern is that the appearance of nondisclosure could be counterproductive to our joint conservation efforts at Tejon Ranch. This dispute, unfortunately, has the potential to distract from and possibly undermine the significant progress we’ve been making in implementing the landmark Tejon Ranch Conservation and Land Use Agreement. We’re also very concerned that the dispute has raised questions about transparency that have the potential to sway public perceptions about the integrity of the conservation agreement and, by extension, the work of the Tejon Ranch Conservancy.”

This concern for public questions about transparency and integrity may reflect the big greens’ anxiety over trying to raise tens of millions of dollars from public and private sources before the end of 2010 to pay for conservation easements “at market price.” If they cannot raise the money to pay the developer, the conservancy pact begins to unravel. Ironically, the pact itself was developed during two years of secret meetings. It forbids the environmental groups to speak out publicly about the impacts of the company’s developments on endangered species and the environment.

The June 29 letter, signed by Joel Reynolds for the Natural Resources Defense Council and Bill Corcoran for Sierra Club, continues: “…we are writing to urge you to resolve this dispute over public access to information, which is something we all should be able to agree is in the public interest and, more specifically, the best interest of our joint efforts toward conservation of Tejon Ranch.

“We recommend that you initiate discussions as quickly as possible with any necessary stakeholders, including the court if necessary, to secure the release of the disputed information.

The Center for Biological Diversity’s Senior Counsel Adam Keats characterizes Tejon Ranch’s sudden inclination to cooperate “remarkably convenient.”

In a telephone interview Monday, Aug. 3, Keats said: “Why, in the month after the door slams shut on comments on the Draft Tehachapi Uplands Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan (TUMSHCP), does Tejon Ranch ‘find religion’ and start advocating for the release of the documents? This shows how tainted the whole process is and has been.”

If the TUMSHCP is approved, FWS will grant Tejon Ranch the 50-year permit to disrupt the critical habitat of the condor. [“Habitat Plan and Federal Analysis Show Major Flaws (Parts 1 and 2),” The Mountain Enterprise, April 10 and 17, 2009].

An emergency captive breeding program was initiated in 1987 when the California Condor population declined to about 22 left on earth. Human activities, including poisoning and shooting, were believed to be the cause of the decline. There are now about 320 of the birds, half in captive breeding programs and half struggling to re-establish themselves across their historic territory. That range includes California’s Coastal Range, the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains and the east-west Transverse Range that connects the two. The Transverse Range is occupied by Tejon Ranch.

Those Tejon uplands are the linchpin for condors’ access to the warm updrafts that rise from the San Joaquin Valley floor, key to lifting the soaring birds into their full historic habitat. Condors often soar 150 miles a day in quest of food. Unhindered access to this full “crescent of viability”—connecting foraging, roosting and nesting areas, while preventing isolation of breeding groups—is critical for North America’s largest land bird to thrive once again in the wild, according to foremost condor specialist Noel Snyder, Ph.D.

—Katy Penland contributed to this report.

This is part of the August 07, 2009 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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