SONORA — About 400 people turned out Tuesday at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds to voice their frustrations with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to designate 1.83 million acres in the Sierra Nevada as critical habitat to protect frogs and toads.
The people who packed a fairgrounds building for the forum organized by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, came from more than a half-dozen foothill and mountain counties, including Calaveras, Tuolumne, Mariposa, Mono and Inyo.
They fear the proposal would devastate their economies by limiting access to the land designated as critical habitat, making it harder to log trees, graze cattle, operate mines and enjoy the outdoors. They fear the proposal would devastate tourism and recreation, which are economic mainstays in their communities.
"It is without a doubt that the local economies in Tuolumne County and all the other counties affected will be negatively impacted," said Tuolumne County Supervisor Randy Hanvelt, one of six experts McClintock invited to testify.
McClintock was joined on stage by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare. They are critical of the Fish and Wildlife proposal and the Endangered Species Act. Fish and Wildlife is working under the act's provisions to protect the frogs and toads.
Nunes said the act has become an infringement on U.S. residents' liberties and freedoms. McClintock said Fish and Wildlife is using junk science in its efforts to protect the amphibians.
Those views struck a chord with nearly everyone at the forum. At one point, McClintock asked audience members who supported the Fish and Wildlife proposal to stand up. No more than a dozen people rose.
Audience member Megan Fiske, 24, who supports the proposal, asked McClintock why he picked only experts who oppose it. "I would expect to see more balance with the witnesses," she said.
McClintock said that's why he invited Fish and Wildlife officials. Alexandra Pitts, the agency's deputy regional director in Sacramento, spoke at the forum.
But many audience members were skeptical of Pitts' answers, and some said the federal government is more interested in protecting animals at the expense of people.
Fish and Wildlife officials are considering listing two types of yellow-legged frogs as endangered species and the Yosemite toad as a threatened species. Along with the listings, the federal agency is considering setting aside 1.83 million acres in the Sierra as critical habitat for the frogs and toads.
Fish and Wildlife officials say nearly all of the acreage is on federal land. Much of the areas are in Fresno (574,882 acres) and Tuolumne (327,907 acres) counties. But the proposed critical habitat stretches across 17 counties, from Lassen in the north to Tulare in the south.
Fish and Wildlife officials say a critical habitat designation affects only activities that are authorized, funded or carried out by a federal agency. In those cases, the federal agency is required to consult with Fish and Wildlife to ensure that the proposed activity does not destroy or harm the critical habitat.
Fish and Wildlife officials expect to decide by April on whether to list the amphibians as endangered and threatened species and to set aside land for critical habitat.
The next step in the process will be the release of an economic analysis of the proposal. The analysis should go out by fall.
More information about the proposal including how to submit a comment is available at http://fblinks.com/toad.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2316.