Politically popular but ecologically suspect, habitat conservation plans (HCPs) have become a powerful tool for resolving conflict between human economic activities and the survival of imperiled plants and animals. Before 1994, only 20 such plans had been adopted. But since the Clinton administration figured out the potential for such agreements to avoid divisive clashes over the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the federal government has embraced them in a big way. There are now more than 300 HCPs nationwide. California is the leader in the development of these plans; the first in the nation was crafted in 1983 to protect the San Bruno elfin butterfly near San Francisco, and there are more than 80 adopted in the state. In recent months, however, a jurisdictional dispute involving the HCP process has flared, raising profound questions about the future of both land development and conservation efforts in and near California's rapidly urbanizing coastal zone. HCPs, first authorized by Congress in 1982, are voluntary agreements negotiated between the federal government and private landowners or state and local agencies. They allow private parties to obtain "incidental take permits" under ESA, authorizing them to unintentionally harm listed species in the course of otherwise lawful activities. In return, landowners agree to adopt specific protections for those species. A builder who wants to pave a meadow, for example, may be allowed to do so if he agrees to protect or reclaim a meadow somewhere else. A key element of the HCP agreement is that it grants the landowner a "no surprises" guarantee, assuring him that during the life of the agreement, new restrictions will not apply to the affected property even if additional species there are declared endangered or if the conservation plan should prove inadequate. The HCP has powerful political appeal. In theory, it provides a net benefit to wildlife and habitat while allowing development to continue, thereby promising something for everyone. It is no coincidence that HCPs soared in popularity after Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994 and mounted a strong campaign to substantially rewrite the ESA, which traditional GOP constituencies — farmers, developers, miners, loggers — regard as an intolerable impediment to their activities. By promoting HCPs, the Clinton administration sought to reconcile the rights of private landowners and the needs of imperiled species, thereby blunting attacks on ESA's integrity. During the two years after Republicans became the majority party in Congress, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service approved 196 HCPs, about 10 times as many as in the preceding 12 years. As HCPs have become more common, however, they have attracted strong opposition from environmentalists and conservation biologists. A common criticism is that the "no surprises" policy is politically expedient but scientifically suspect, given the complexity of ecosystems, the certainty of change in nature and the paucity of data about interactions between creatures and their habitat. The HCP negotiation process is frequently faulted for being secretive, and critics charge that HCPs often are based on incomplete scientific data or that they ignore science altogether. There is some independent support for these assertions. A December 1998 report by researchers at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment concluded that the public was being provided no meaningful opportunity for involvement in the HCP process. And a 1999 report by the American Institute of Biological Sciences and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara, concluded that HCPs typically rest on shaky scientific ground. The study found that HCPs lack quantitative assessments of the actual harm they will allow to listed species, and that they make no provision for evaluating results. Nevertheless, legal challenges to HCPs have been rare. Only twice have courts ordered federal officials to rewrite them, the most recent such ruling coming this summer in a suit brought to overturn an HCP for Sacramento's Natomas Basin. The controversy rose in pitch during October when the California Coastal Commission —asserting that poorly crafted HCPs may authorize ecological damage that violates the state's 1976 Coastal Act — demanded a role in the process. Typically, the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) has represented state interests during HCP negotiations. Peter Douglas, the Coastal Commission's executive director, proposed last year in a letter to federal officials that commission staff be involved in drafting HCP agreements and that the commission be allowed to review HCP permits for compliance with the state's Coastal Act. His argument is that the federal Coastal Zone Management Act grants the commission a role in federally regulated activities that affect the coastal zone — including HCPs and offshore oil leases — even if the activities extend outside the zone. The commission voted at its October 11 meeting to support Douglas's proposal, asking the U.S. Department of Commerce — which is involved in the HCP process through its Office of Coastal Resources Management — to order that the commission be consulted whenever an HCP is being prepared. Such routine notification already is the case in 10 states. That move set off a turf war. Michael Spear, operations manager at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's California-Nevada office, sent Douglas a letter saying that involving the Coastal Commission would "have a chilling effect" on the willingness of landowners to participate in the HCP program. The development community — which battles continuously with the rigorously protective Coastal Commission — predicted calamity if that panel were allowed to interfere. The DFG also resisted the commission's effort to get involved. State Resources Secretary Mary Nichols, whose agency encompasses DFG and the Coastal Commission, entered the fray as peacemaker, trying to persuade the commission to back off. She failed, although the commission agreed in December to wait a month before taking additional action. That set up a potential showdown between the commission and the Department of Commerce this month, when the latter is to rule on the consultation request. Environmental groups are frantically lobbying Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta because they assume the Bush administration will be less sympathetic to coastal protection than the Clinton administration, although Texas is among the states where routine notification is the rule. Although many HCPs provide clear ecological benefits, the ruckus lends credence to the suspicion that HCPs are primarily political tools, rather than a biologically sound mechanisms to ensure conservation of rare species. Involving an entity such as the Coastal Commission — which has its own popular mandate in the 1972 voter-approved initiative that established it — might slow down the process, but HCP proponents place themselves in an awkward position when they assert that public scrutiny and conformity with state law are impediments. However the turf war is resolved, it appears certain that the use of HCPs is going to receive more scrutiny in the future than it has during the past decade. Contacts: Michael Spear, USFWS, (916) 414-6464 Peter Douglas, California Coastal Commission, (415) 904-5200 Mary Nichols, California Resources Agency, (916) 653-5656