Hundreds of people crammed into the Sierra Building at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds on Tuesday to voice their concerns over a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal that many fear would limit land use in a number of rural California counties.
Congressman Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, hosted the two-hour event to gather input from the public about the service's proposed rule granting protections to the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog and Yosemite toad under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Also in attendance was Congressman Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, who told the lively standing-room only crowd during an opening statement that "This is just the beginning before they come and take your jobs away."
McClintock, whose congressional district includes Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, said a transcript of the testimony and public comments made at Tuesday's event in Sonora would be compiled and submitted as supplemental data for a hearing on the topic in the House Natural Resources Committee.
Much of the controversy has centered around a provision that would label more than 2 million acres of land spanning 16 mountain counties, including Tuolumne and Calaveras, as "critical habitat" for the protected amphibians.
Roughly 500,000 acres would receive the designation in Tuolumne County, which equates to more than one-third of its total area.
Opponents of the proposed listing are worried such a designation would open the door for the government to limit public access or use of land that lies within the proposed area. Supporters say the land in question is almost entirely managed by the federal government and the designation wouldn't impose any further restrictions on the public.
Six panelists were invited by McClintock's staff to "testify" at the event, which was held in the style of a congressional hearing.
"I want to emphasize that critical habitat does not close or restrict access to public lands," said Alexandra Pitts, deputy regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service, who was first to testify and the only panelist in support of the proposal.
Pitts said significant population declines observed in both species of amphibians over the past 10 years or so have led to the need for the proposed regulation. She said recreation was not considered a significant threat, but livestock grazing was among the identified impacts contributing to habitat degradation.
The critical habitat label would only require federal entities proposing any projects or uses on the land to consult with the service, Pitts said.
Mike Applegarth, principal analyst for El Dorado County, testified the proposal has already been used as an excuse to close a number of high country mountain roads in the area to off-road vehicles.
Applegarth also blasted the scientific references cited in the service's proposal and pointed to other studies which apparently found no evidence that human activities from recreation or timber harvesting have contributed to the declines in the frog and toad populations.
"When faced with an onslaught of science from the federal government that purportedly supports a cause, I would encourage all members of the audience to look at the overall structure of the argument ... and not to be overwhelmed by the number of words, footnotes and citations on the page which can give an illusion of authority or expertise," Applegarth said.
Calaveras County cattle rancher Kelly Wooster, Siskiyou County resident Mark Baird, Steve Brink, of the California Forestry Association, and Tuolumne County Supervisor Randy Hanvelt also testified at the event and were all against the proposal.
Wooster cited studies that apparently concluded modern ranching practices were compatible with sustaining riparian environments. Baird said environmental regulations on the Klamath River have had a negative impact on the local economy.
Brink testified that the amount of timber harvested out of forests dropped 80 percent in the years after those areas were designated critical habitat for the spotted owl during the 1990s.
Hanvelt talked about the potential wildfire risk if the designation makes fire management projects more difficult to organize. He also worried about the hit to the local economy from the loss of tourism should limits be placed on recreational opportunities that attract many to the county.
"Contrary to what Ms. Pitts said ... access to the area is the problem," Hanvelt said. "While they say they won't deny access, the practice is that they do. We will be impacted by it because we've seen it before."
A number of people spoke out against the service's proposal during the public comment session, including government officials from Mono, Amador and Inyo counties, parts of which lie within the proposed critical habitat area.
One Mono County woman said she took the day off from work and drove two hours just to attend the event and voice her opposition.
Though they were vastly outnumbered, a handful of supporters attended the forum as well.
The Fish and Wildlife Service will accept written public comments regarding the proposal through Nov. 18. A study looking into the potential economic impacts of a critical habitat designation is expected to be released sometime this fall.
Pitts said there will be a period for the public to comment on the economic analysis and several public meetings and hearings before the service makes a final decision, which is expected for sometime in the spring of next year.
McClintock asked how much weight the public comments carry in the decision making process. Pitts said the final decision would depend mostly the need to protect the amphibians based on the biological evidence.
John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, called the forum a "dog and pony show" and a "one-sided attack on environmental regulations as a whole."
"This was an incredibly uninformed and misguided set of opinions not based on the proposed rule," he said in an interview.
According to Buckley, 93 percent of the proposed critical habitat land in Tuolumne County is already federally managed, while the other 7 percent is in the high country where most uses wouldn't be affected.
"It will not restrict logging or use but will require federal agencies to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to minimize harm when projects go forward," he said.
McClintock wasn't so trusting.
"It was discussed today that the critical habitat designation has no impact on human activity," he said in an interview. "That's a song we've heard before and that's a song that's been revealed over and over again to be patently false."