LITTLE ROCK — The Association of Arkansas Counties along with several supporting organizations both in the public and private sector have submitted comments on the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) proposed designation of critical habitat for the Neosho mucket and Rabbitsfoot mussels.
The main goal of the effort is to decrease the USFWS’ overly broad geographical area being proposed as critical habitat. The decrease is based on sound science, adherence to the spirit of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA), and potential social and economic impacts to Arkansas. The effort proposes a 36 percent reduction in the geographical area compared to what USFWS has proposed as designated critical habitat.
About one-third of Arkansas private property owners would have property in the USFWS proposed critical habitat area, and almost 800 river miles in Arkansas would be included in the proposed critical habitat.
“A decision of a critical habitat designation of this magnitude with such a large geographical area deserves to be made on sound science and economics,” said AAC Executive Director Chris Villines. “We think it is imperative to subjectively understand this issue and all of the possible impacts on Arkansans. Without our (AAC’s) involvement, an important decision facing about 1/3 of the land owners in the state could be made with only one side of the story; therefore, we felt it necessary to involve state associations and organizations and local scientists and economists who know Arkansas.”
The AAC and 10 other organizations collectively submitted comments to the USFWS that included independent environmental studies conducted by GBMc & Associates, an environmental services company, and Histecon Associates, Inc., in Little Rock, conducted the economic impact studies while the firm Gill Ragon Owen P.A. submitted the final comments for submission to the USFWS.
“The potential impact on Arkansas citizens, especially private land owners, city and county roads, Arkansas’ economy, just to name a few, is just too significant to not fully investigate this federal designation,” Villines said.
Members of this effort for responsible critical habitat designation in Arkansas include:
Association of Arkansas Counties; Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce; Arkansas Environmental Federation; Arkansas Forestry Association; Arkansas Farm Bureau; Arkansas Poultry Federation; Arkansas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners; Camp Ozark; Energy and Environmental Alliance of Arkansas; Arkansas Cattlemen’s Association; and Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts.
“It is our strong belief than an overbroad designation of critical habitat for the Rabbitsfoot mussel and the Neosho mucket mussel in Arkansas will have a significant negative impact upon the overall economy of Arkansas,” said Randy Zook, President & CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas. “The direct impact on the economic operation of counties, cities, agricultural operations and many business and industrial operations is potentially very costly. And the indirect impact of lost jobs, reduced or eliminated development, and avoidance of necessary repairs and improvements greatly increases the negative impact on our state’s economy.
“Additional damage to our economy will then follow in the form of lost tax revenue, increased unemployment claims, damage from unrepaired roads and bridges, and increases in transportation costs. As local tax revenues are reduced and public assistance programs increase, tax increases will eventually be triggered that will not only have a direct negative impact on the state’s economy but an even broader negative impact by reducing the state’s economic competitiveness.”
In total Arkansas is faced with 42 potential listings in the next several years. All of which were apart of a settlement agreement with environmentalists where the affected public had no input or knowledge the settlement was occurring.
The local environmental studies found that many areas that have been proposed for critical habitat designation have no recent occurrences of the target species and there is insufficient information to determine the area is essential for conversation of the species. Furthermore, in some instances the USFWS designated entire stream and river reaches in the critical habitat area when this approach is not consistent with the requirements for designation of critical habitat under the ESA. The USFWS even states that “the ranges of many water quality parameters that define suitable habitat conditions have not been investigated or are poorly understood.”
Furthermore, the environmental analysis indicates that because there is so little known about specific habitat requirements the proposed critical habitat is overly broad and unnecessary for the preservation of the species.
“This overly broad designation should not be merely determined by the federal government without accurate data from local experts,” Sikes said. “It is questionable if a single private or local public landowner was even spoken to. The local economic impact study unearthed several inadequacies in the USFWS economic impact study.”
The contrast between the economic impact studies was significant.
“Based on our economic impact analysis the absolute minimum cost of the proposed critical habitat in Arkansas alone is more than $20 million,” said Jeff Sikes, AAC legislative director. “The USFWS economic impact is illogical and patently unrealistic as it is only based on specious expectations.”
The USFWS predicts the cost of critical habitat designation as a total of only $4.4 million per year for 20 years for all 12 states affected. The process used was an incremental approach that only estimated the likely cost of agencies consulting with each other. And it did not factor in any additional costs to private property and the impact critical habitat will have on their cost to operate their business and property values. Potential impacts on any small business were also not factored in the USFWS economic analysis.
“The Arkansas Forestry Association (AFA) and its members work diligently to enhance and protect private property rights and facilitate programs and services that promote profitable forestry, sustainability and stewardship. The association has an interest in this rulemaking because the scope of the proposed critical habitat is overly broad and so little information is known to justify such a designation,” said Max Braswell, executive vice president, Arkansas Forestry Association. “If implemented as proposed, the critical habitat designation could have a significant, negative economic impact on the timber and forest products community. As important, delays in the ability of private landowners to implement effective, sustainable forestry practices could have a long-term impact on forest health in Arkansas.”