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Urban Wildlands
The Press-Enterprise, August 28, 2009

Suit filed over future of Stephens' kangaroo rat preserve

By Janet Zimmerman

Environmental groups filed a lawsuit Thursday over a plan to eliminate a 1,008-acre preserve for the endangered Stephens' kangaroo rat in western Riverside County to make way for industrial development.

The Center for Biological Diversity and San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society allege that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act and other environmental law when it OK'd the plan.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in San Diego, centers on the swap of the kangaroo rat preserve at March Air Reserve Base for land in Potrero Canyon south of Beaumont.

"The March preserve itself is irreplaceable for wildlife. It can't simply be flipped," said Jonathan Evans, an attorney with the center.

The preserve was established in 1991 to compensate for the loss of kangaroo rat habitat when nearby Interstate 215 was improved. It was expanded as former base property was developed, Evans said.

Losing the preserve could harm the species' ability to recover from the edge of extinction, environmentalists said. It also would further threaten other imperiled species there, including the burrowing owl, the least Bell's vireo and the southwestern willow flycatcher, Evans said.

Jane Hendron, spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service's Carlsbad office, said she could not comment on pending litigation.

Officials with the Riverside County Habitat Conservation Agency, which acquires and manages habitat for the kangaroo rat and other endangered and threatened species, could not be reached for comment.

The environmental groups filed a notice of intent to sue in 2007 and finally took action because of "immediate threats" posed by two, large-scale warehouse projects next to the preserve, Evans said. Riverside County approved one this week; the other will go before Riverside planning commissioners Sept. 3, he said.

The first project, the Alessandro Commerce Center on the south side of Alessandro Boulevard at San Gorgonio Drive, is bordered on two sides by the preserve. It includes 719,636 square feet of warehouse distribution, offices, retail and light industrial and was approved Monday by the county planning director, said Damian Meins, assistant planning director.

A second project, the Alessandro Business Park, on the north side of Alessandro Boulevard at San Gorgonio Drive, includes 37 acres of light industrial, warehouse distribution and offices. The developer, Western Realco of Newport Beach, will dedicate 36.2 acres of open space to the city for incorporation into the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Park, said Clara Miramontes, principal planner with the city.

The move to include open space goes beyond what is required by the Stephens' kangaroo rat habitat conservation plan, she said. Staff has recommended approval of the project to commissioners, who will consider a draft environmental impact report at their meeting next week, she said.

Evans contends the projects will destroy essential wildlife linkages and threaten the entire network of Riverside County wildlife preserves by isolating the preserve from the nearby Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Park.

© 2009 Press-Enterprise Company

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton