Critical habitat deadline extended, meeting set

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has extended the deadline for public comments to Sept. 30 in regard to rules of the proposed critical habitat designations for endangered Hawaiian plants, and will hold two public meetings on Kaua’i next week.

In this case, “critical habitats” are required by the federal Endangered Species Act, whose central goal is to preserve the natural habitat of endangered plants and recover species, to be removed from the endangered species list.

In a prepared statement, the FWS said the extended deadline is a continuing effort to ensure the public has adequate opportunity to review designation proposals, especially for species that exist on more than one island, Henson said.

“We know it is a significant burden on the public to review so many different critical habitat proposed rules, all with differing deadlines,” said Paul Henson, field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Office.

The deadline for comments was extended to Sept. 30 for all plant packages except Lana’i, whose public comment period ended Aug. 30 after a public meeting and hearing in July and August.

The critical habitat proposals for plants were developed on an island-by-island basis and were released from January to May. The FWS allowed 60-day public comment periods, most of which were later extended to accommodate public hearings and the review of draft economic analyses.

The draft economic analysis for Kaua’i was introduced May 28. The critical habitat proposal for Kaua’i was the first proposal to be released and encompasses about 99,000 acres, adding almost 40,000 to an initial proposal from May 2001.

Many Kaua’i residents said they thought the expanded critical habitat designations were determined by guesswork and designations might limit recreational use of the land. Some private landowners had concerns that the designations would lower property value to future owners who might have to ensure protection of plants. Hawaiian plant experts differed on methods of restoring native plants for de-listing.

After heated public opposition to the proposals since February, the FWS has since been working with other agencies like the Department of Land and Natural Resources, Forestry and Wildlife Division to come up with a compromise.

Mike Buck, division administrator, said that the FWS team has come around to understand the DLNR’s thinking on the issue; communication has resulted in a more realistic plan for protecting plants.

Once lands get listed as critical habitat, the primary focus is to protect the plants, and Buck says that people are likely to expect something to happen once lands are designated as critical habitats. “It has to mean something,” he said.

The FWS maintained that the designations will only affect those who require a federal permit for land use or projects by requiring then to account for their actions; it won’t set aside areas for protection or require any other action for restoration unless initiated by landowners.

The proposed critical habitat rules cover 83 plant species over 821,610 acres across the state from Kaua’i and Ni’ihau, 61 from Maui and Kaho’olawe, 46 from Moloka’i, five from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, 47 from Hawai’i, and 99 from O’ahu. Some of these plants are found on more than one island. The habitats specified include state, federal, and private lands. According to the FWS, most of those lands are within existing conservation districts.

The FWS has scheduled two informal question-and-answer sessions on Kaua’i regarding critical habitat for plants: Sept. 4 at the Waimea Neighborhood Center, 5 — 8 p.m.; and Sept. 5 at the Kaua’i Community College Performing Arts Center, 5 — 8 p.m.

Fish and Wildlife Service staff will outline the critical habitat designation process before opening the meetings to questions and answers, the statement said.

Fact sheets regarding the proposals and copies of the proposed rules are available via the Internet: http://pacificislands.fws.gov (under Endangered Species); or by calling the Fish and Wildlife Service in Honolulu at 808-541-3441.

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