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Give and take 

SLO State Parks devise a plan that would allow for snowy plover deaths

It may seem contradictory to allow some endangered species to be killed or harmed in order to save the species as a whole, but that's exactly what a habitat conservation plan (HCP) that SLO State Parks is drafting would do.

The HCP would allow for a certain amount of "incidental take," which is the harm done to a species as a result of human use. The Endangered Species Act broadly defines take as to "harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct" with an endangered species.

So SLO State Parks is drafting an HCP to ensure that humans continue to have access to SLO County state parks while also protecting the parks' endangered species and natural resources. It's a balancing act and one that SLO State Parks is doing well, said Nick Franco, district superintendent for the SLO Parks Coast District.

"We think we've found that [balance]; but there's plenty who don't think we've found that," said Franco.

Franco is probably referencing groups like the Sierra Club and Friends of the Oceano Dunes. The latter is a group of outdoor vehicle enthusiasts that work to "ensure continued access to the Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area (ODSVR)."

In December, the Sierra Club won increased protection for the endangered snowy plover in the ODSVR. The lawsuit settlement secured an additional half-mile of plover breeding ground to be closed to off-roaders between March and October, the bird's breeding season. This came three years after the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club lobbied the California Coastal Commission to close a mile and a half of beach for plover protection.

According to Franco it's State Parks' job to ensure access to state beaches while also protecting their natural resources.

"We feel we've put in place sufficient restrictions that protect those species but at the same time don't negatively impact visitor recreation," said Franco. "Our mission is preserving natural and cultural resources for future generations and providing opportunities for high-quality outdoor recreation. We want to achieve that and we don't feel that closing off [areas] to all public use meets our mission."

The implementation of an HCP with a take permit frees SLO State Parks of liability when endangered species are harmed.

"Because we own the property and we manage the property we are technically responsible for [take] because we permitted people to go to the beach. So we could technically be legally responsible for that take and be fined for it and legally punished for that," said Franco.

After numerous public workshops, SLO State Parks is now drafting the HCP, which will then be sent to U.S. Fish and Wildlife for approval. In order for the HCP to be approved, SLO State Parks must demonstrate that is has sound conservation management while also allowing access for the public.

Babak Naficy, an environmental lawyer who represented the Sierra Club in the snowy plover lawsuit, said he doesn't like the idea of HCPs but understands the need for them.

"Do I particularly like habitat conservation plans? No. Do I think they cause take? Yes. Do I want State Parks to keep parks open? Yes," Naficy said. "Can you make state parks not cause take? Well, not if they're going to be state parks."

But Naficy says the amount of take allowed must not harm the overall recovery of a given species. "The idea is that if the incidental take is going to be a serious impediment to recovery, you shouldn't allow it."

For parks' management it's plovers and dirt bikes and trying to be fair to all.

"Some think we've put too much restrictions on, some think we're not protecting the resource enough," said Franco. Where's that balance? I don't know. I think it's pretty close to where we are right now."

Staff writer John Peabody can be reached at [email protected].

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