A settlement agreement between the federal government and an environmental group might not allow for more public comment on classifying the White Bluffs bladderpod as endangered.
Franklin County commissioners asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week to reopen a 60-to-90-day comment period, amid concerns that the agency did not provide proper notice to local governments and farmers before a comment period last year.
The plant's endangered species status goes into effect May 23, making critical habitat out of 2,861 acres along the Columbia River in Franklin County, including 419 acres of private land.
At Wednesday's regular meeting, Commission Chairman Rick Miller said a settlement agreement between the Center for Biological Diversity and the U.S. Department of the Interior -- Fish and Wildlife's parent agency -- specifically prohibits another comment period.
Federal law gives the county six years to file a lawsuit, Miller said, but he doesn't want to wait that long.
"To me, when they list (a species as endangered), it is almost impossible to get it delisted," Miller said
U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, sent a letter Wednesday to Fish and Wildlife director Dan Ashe asking the Obama administration to halt the endangered listing, open a 60-day comment period and schedule a public hearing to allow farmers and landowners to express concerns.
Hastings, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, wrote that Fish and Wildlife rated the bladderpod -- a member of the cabbage family -- near the bottom of a list for endangered species priority.
In recent years, the agency has allowed for new comment periods for the lesser prairie chicken and dunes sagebrush lizard, Hastings said.
"Because the right to one's private property is a fundamental right protected by our constitution, when federal rules and regulations might impact such rights, as here, I firmly believe that extra caution should be exercised by the federal government," he said.
Hastings also criticized what he called "behind closed doors" negotiations by the Interior Department. The critical habitat designation could cost more than $300,000 in lost irrigated agriculture value, he said.
Fish and Wildlife officials have said the designation would have little impact on private landowners. However, the agency's assessment of the species says the bladderpod is threatened by water seepage caused by irrigation, which can lead to landslides that prevent the plant from growing in an area.
County commissioners voted Tuesday to seek outside legal help from someone who specializes in land-use cases. Miller said Wednesday that he has been in discussions with Washington Farm Bureau CEO John Stuhlmiller for advice.
Among the attorneys Stuhlmiller recommended is Karen Budd Falen of Wyoming, who has worked on the Columbia River biological opinion and Washington Toxic cases, Miller said. The county also should consider the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit in Sacramento, Calif., that provides free legal services, he added.
The Pacific Legal Foundation seeks out cases that promote private property rights and individual freedom, according to its website.
"This is the kind of case they work with," Miller said.
In other business Wednesday, the commissioners:
-- Applied for a $70,000 federal Community Development Block Grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to help an area that lost its well service near Taylor Flats and Fir roads in the northwestern part of the county.
Matt Rasmussen, assistant public works director, said the aging well used by the Sunset Domestic Water Association, which provides water to 48 homes, collapsed three weeks ago while workers were making repairs to a pump. Since then, residents have had to get non-drinking water from an old, shallow well, while using bottled water for drinking. Rasmussen hoped the grant would be approved within three weeks.
"They treat this as an emergency situation," he said. "It doesn't have the normal process."
-- Appointed Greg Gales and Derek Donley and reappointed Carl Adrian, Curt Freed, Norman Moorer, Todd Samuel and Lisa Bunch to the Benton-Franklin Workforce Development Council.
-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom