Conservation in Kansas comes under attack in Legislature

03/28/2014 7:22 AM

03/28/2014 7:22 AM

Conservation management versus economic interests.

That’s the battle being waged in Kansas as a series of bills makes its way through the Legislature.

At stake: whether wildlife and environmentally sensitive land will continue to be protected or conservation management will give way to development, energy and agricultural interests.

Backers of the measures see them as a sound defense against unreasonable environmental rules. Opponents view them differently.

“If these bills go through,” said Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas, “they could change conservation management as we know it in Kansas.

“There’s never been an assault of this nature, in my memory, and I’ve been involved in the state’s conservation issues since 1970.”

Action could be taken on any or all of the measures within the next week. The current legislative session ends April 4.

Four bills are at the heart of the controversy.

• The first, drafted by Secretary of State Kris Kobach and introduced by a legislative committee, would challenge the federal Endangered Species Act, especially in regard to the lesser prairie chicken, which was designated Thursday as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The designation, Kobach has said, could have “enormous consequences” for western Kansas, rendering thousands of acres protected from development. Kobach wants the responsibility of managing non-migratory wildlife, such as the lesser prairie chicken, left up to state jurisdiction.

The bill would make it a felony for any federal worker to participate in a recovery program for the lesser prairie chicken in Kansas.

• A second bill would threaten existing conservation easements, which today protect tens of thousands of acres of unique territory in Kansas, particularly some of the nation’s last remaining tracts of prairie in the Flint Hills.

• A third would repeal the Kansas Nongame and Endangered Species Act of 1975, in turn eliminating special protection for 60 species now designated as threatened or endangered in Kansas.

• The final measure is pretty straightforward: It would allow landowners rights to wildlife (in particular, antlers from trophy deer) taken illegally on their land. Currently, wildlife poached from someone’s land must be surrendered to the state.

The first three measures, especially, are spurring impassioned reaction from all sides.

The chicken fight

The lesser prairie chicken has become a symbol of the fight to save a struggling species, much the same as the northern spotted owl had been in the western U.S.

The spotted owl, listed as threatened in 1990, has been the subject of heated debate and legal battles between conservation interests, loggers, ranchers and developers. The core issue revolves around how much land should be set aside as critical habitat for the species at the expense of economic interests.

Now, the lesser prairie chicken may step into that spotlight.

But even conservationists are split on what they want. There’s no question that populations of lesser prairie chickens have dropped sharply from what they once were. But many wildlife biologists say the biggest culprit in their decline is prolonged drought in the region — not man-caused reduction of their habitat.

Kansas has been part of a proposed range-wide management plan to help the bird, along with Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. The multistate plan, in which willing landowners would cooperate with conservation methods to benefit the lesser prairie chicken in exchange for compensation, was designed to be less strict than the threatened species designation. But wildlife officials were convinced it could help restore populations of the birds.

In recent testimony before a Kansas House committee, Kobach said the federal government’s “threatened” designation would create “an economic wasteland” in regions that include the bird’s habitat.

“This designation has the potential to decimate the economy in western Kansas,” Kobach said in a telephone interview with The Star on Thursday before the listing was announced. “Agriculture, ranching, wind energy, fossil fuels — they would all be restricted. And this at a time when the economy in that part of the state is fragile already.

“We just don’t think this listing is justified.”

He said the bill he drafted is intended to set up a lawsuit against the federal government.

“It’s a fight worth fighting,” Kobach said.

However, in announcing the Fish and Wildlife Service’s action Thursday, agency head Dan Ashe may have alleviated some of those fears when he announced that activities that were covered under the five-state agreement, such as oil and gas drilling and utility line maintenance, will be allowed to continue.

Opponents like Klataske, the Audubon director, say this worst-case scenario is exaggerated.

“There are currently 14 species that are federally listed as threatened or endangered in Kansas, and the sky hasn’t fallen,” Klataske said. “There has been a lot of misinformation spread around. This wouldn’t result in an economic disaster. It would benefit Kansas as a whole.”

Protecting a legacy

When Patty and Jerry Reece started buying land in the Flint Hills almost 15 years ago, they were swept away by the beauty of the landscape.

“We wanted to preserve our land for future generations,” said Patty, who lives with her husband in Mission Hills. “We wanted our grandchildren to show their children how Kansas was when they were growing up.”

The Reeces donated their land as a conservation easement to the Kansas Nature Conservancy, which functions as a means of forever protecting key tracts from development, the plow and wind turbines.

Approximately 130,000 acres of land are protected under conservation easements provided by the Nature Conservancy, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Kansas Land Trust, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Ranchland Trust of Kansas.

A newly proposed bill seeks to eliminate the perpetuity clause and give future landowners the ability to opt out of the program.

Reece, chairwoman of the Kansas Nature Conservancy Board of Trustees, doubts that she and her husband would’ve enrolled in the program if such a loophole had existed.

Jerry Carlson, executive director of the Kansas Natural Resource Coalition, has a different view. His group, made up of representatives from counties in western Kansas, thinks conservation easements needlessly tie the hands of future landowners who inherit such tracts.

“While the goal of conservation easement programs appear noble, beneath the surface unintended conflicts are arising between nonprofit land trusts, local government and, in some cases, property owners,” Carlson said in testimony before the Kansas Senate Committee on Natural Resources. “Such conflicts range from land-use disagreements, property devaluations, tax issues and unintended private property takes.

“At the center of a brewing debate is the question of whether vacant or unvisited land may be considered ‘a substantial public benefit’ — and if so, can lands be legitimately removed from tax rolls?”

Capital maneuvering

Conservation leaders in Kansas remain outraged by another maneuver that took place in the legislature earlier this month.

The Senate Natural Resources Committee was meeting to discuss a bill that would remove redbelly and smooth earth snakes from protection under the Kansas Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act. Developers and utility interests in Johnson County had lobbied for the move, claiming that the snakes’ protected status curtailed their ability to develop otherwise usable land.

Committee chairman Larry Powell, a Republican from Garden City, amended the snakes bill to repeal the Kansas Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act. He then tacked the provisions of the bill onto an unrelated measure that had already passed in the Kansas House and now needs only Senate approval.

“It (the state endangered species act) has been costing a lot of people across the state economic development,” Powell said in a recent Associated Press article.

The maneuver was permissible under Kansas legislative rules, and is relatively common, but Klataske called it “stealth attack.”

“The problem is,” Klataske said, “that Kansans in recent years have gotten lackadaisical about what is going on in the Legislature.

“They need to be aware. Some of these bills could have a major impact on Kansas conservation management.”

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