Our Voice: White Bluffs bladderpod's endangered species status result of flubbed process

May 19, 2013 

It's amazing the kind of problems one little plant with an odd name can cause.

Until just a few weeks ago, most of us hadn't heard of the White Bluffs bladderpod. Now, it's a household name in Franklin County farm homes, and not a good one.

The plant has been classified as endangered thanks to a settlement between the federal government and the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based environmental group.

The bladderpod's special status is scheduled to go into effect Thursday, making 2,861 acres along the Columbia River in Franklin County critical habitat.

That might sound well and good because we already have a federal monument in the Hanford Reach, but not all the plants choose to grow on public lands.

The critical habitat designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service includes 419 private acres, much of it irrigated farms.

Any time the government starts talking about endangered species on private property, land owners react strongly, especially when they believe the process hasn't been transparent.

Affected landowners and their fellow farmers have asked Franklin County commissioners to intervene to delay the looming endangered species status for the bladderpod. They say the public was not given proper notice to have a say in the matter.

Individual landowners -- the folks with the most at stake -- were not notified. Fish and Wildlife claims it could not find them, but Franklin County makes it pretty easy to find landowners through the assessor's website.

The Federal Register listing, issued in April of this year, states that along with federal and state agencies, scientific experts and organizations and other interested parties were invited to comment last year.

Franklin County officials and the Franklin County Natural Resource Advisory Committee say there were not contacted. We're pretty sure if they had been advised that farm land was potentially threatened by a yellow flower that only was discovered about 20 years ago, we would have heard about it at the time. And loudly.

The agriculture community has asked for a new comment period, and has the support of U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco. Hastings sent a letter to the director of Fish and Wildlife requesting a stop to the endangered listing for the plant, a 60-day comment period and a hearing schedule. Franklin County commissioners have sought outside legal help from land-use attorneys and are considering a lawsuit.

But as many can attest, environmental groups have honed their craft during the years. The settlement between the Department of the Interior and the Center for Biological Diversity specifically prohibits another comment period.

Hastings is critical of the settlement, saying negotiations took place behind closed doors. The end result could be more than $300,000 in lost irrigated agriculture.

And because the White Bluffs bladderpod designation has been badly handled, the conspiracy theorists among us have been activated. If the plant population expands deeper into farm ground, will more acres be affected? Some are going as far as to call this "our Spotted Owl" and a "precedent-setting case that threatens all property rights within the Columbia Basin and surrounding areas."

Fish and Wildlife officials claim the designation will have little impact on private landowners. But, then again, farmers had to explain to a state official with Fish and Wildlife that labels on chemicals used in farming prohibit their use within a certain distance of endangered species.

And the agency's report on the White Bluffs bladderpod says one of the threats to its survival is water seepage caused by irrigation that can lead to landslides along its favorite habitat, "near-vertical exposures of weathered, cemented, alkaline, calcium carbonate paleosol." In other words, the White Bluffs.

We can understand why farmers are alarmed. Let's hope our elected officials can force Fish and Wildlife to find a solution that works for everyone involved.

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