Plant under fire in Franklin County

Tri-City HeraldMay 8, 2013 

The White Bluffs bladderpod has been named a protected species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It grows only on the Hanford Reach and nearby private land in Franklin County.

TIM MCCRACKEN — U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

— Franklin County farmer Steve Cooper said recently approved federal protections for a Franklin County plant could adversely affect the county’s tax base if farming is limited where the protected plants grow.

“It’s going to cause ramifications across the county,” said Cooper, vice president for policy development for the state Farm Bureau, Wednesday after a Franklin County commissioners public hearing. “It’s hard to get folks involved who live a long way from the river, but it’s going to impact them.”

After hearing from dozens of farmers during the meeting attended by about 60 people, commissioners agreed to send federal officials a letter asking them to give the public more time to make its case about listing the yellow-flowering White Bluffs bladderpod as an endangered species. And if the feds doesn’t listen, legal action could follow.

Commissioners will notify U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that they feel the federal agency didn’t provide the required 60-day comment period when it announced April 22 that the White Bluffs bladderpod would receive protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Commission Chairman Rick Miller said the county never received formal notice about the proposed change.

“Agriculture is so important to our county,” he said. “I used to farm and I know these things can ruin you. You can lose your career, your retirement.”

The plant only grows along the Columbia River in Franklin County. While much of the growth is in the Hanford Reach National Monument, another 419 acres of private land are considered protected critical habitat. And farmers said Wednesday they feared the area where farming is prohibited could grow as part of a “buffer zone.” But Fish and Wildlife officials said there is no reason to be concerned because farming is already allowed on land it deems critical habitat if it has already been disturbed.

Doug Zimmer, supervisor of information and education for U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Washington office in Lacey, said the only way private land is affected by the endangered species regulations is if it receives federal funding, which most farms don’t get.

“The impacts for critical habitat to private property is very, very small,” he said.

But Kent McMullen, chairman of the Natural Resources Advisory Committee, which advises the county on environmental issues, said the federal government can implement the buffer zone, expanding the protected area, if the White Bluffs bladderpod population decreases. He said he is particularly concerned that the Fish and Wildlife could ban livestock from the area.

“That’s just a false sense of security — they can make a determination to impose a 300-meter buffer zone,” he said. “That’s a bureaucrat that’s washing over the details and trying to keep people from looking at the fine print.”

Zimmer said the idea of a buffer zone came from a misunderstanding.

“That’s false information,” he said. “There is no buffer zone. We’ll make that clear as we go forward.”

Zimmer also disputes claims that proper notification wasn’t provided for the original comment period in summer 2012, when Fish and Wildlife sought feedback about listing the White Bluffs bladderpod, as well as the Umtanum desert buckwheat that grows on Department of Energy land across the Columbia River in Benton County, as threatened species. He said notices were sent to elected officials and the media.

But McMullen said the National Environmental Protection Act requires the government to go further and send a certified letter or meet with representatives from affected counties. He said Fish and Wildlife also failed to set up any comment period when it took the additional step of making the plants endangered species this year.

Zimmer said his department is not required to have a second comment period.

Others at the meeting questioned why Fish and Wildlife would implement the regulations when the number of bladderpod plants was on the rise.

In 2011, the last year in which figures were provided, the bladderpod population reached 58,887 plants. That was the most in a year when samples were taken since at least 1998 and up from 9,949 in 2010.

Commissioner Brad Peck said it has been rare that the Fish and Wildlife Service has reopened its public comment period on an issue. But it did so last week with the lesser prairie chicken, a grouse found in the Southwest, he said.

“They created a precedent that they may live to regret, frankly,” he said.

Commissioners said they need to have the issue resolved by May 23, when the White Bluffs bladderpod’s endangered species listing officially goes into effect.

While they said their first letter to Fish and Wildlife, which will be sent by Thursday morning, will be polite, if they don’t get a satisfactory response within a few business days, commissioners will send a second one that more clearly outlines the perceived violations. And if there is still no resolution after that, Miller said the county could take legal action before May 23.

“There’s a very good chance we can work this out, there’s just not much time,” he said.

Commissioners are planning another meeting on the bladderpod issue at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the third floor historical courtroom at the Franklin County Courthouse, a room larger than their regular meeting space. They initially wanted to have it at the TRAC center off Road 68 but it was booked.

Commissioners plan to invite Zimmer or another Fish and Wildlife official to the meeting. Zimmer said he wants to speak with Franklin County residents, but didn’t know how much traveling Fish and Wildlife personnel could do because of sequestration cuts.

“I have no doubt that we will be able to communicate,” he said.

-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

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