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For Immediate Release, June 4, 2008

Contact: Dr. Robin Silver, Center for Biological Diversity, (602) 246-4170
Herb Fibel, Maricopa Audubon, (480) 966-5246
Dr. Paul Green, Tucson Audubon, (520) 777-9525

Conservation Groups File Lawsuit to Stop Pinal County's
Destruction of Lower San Pedro River Conservation Area

PHOENIX, Ariz.— The Center for Biological Diversity, Maricopa Audubon Society, and Tucson Audubon Society filed a lawsuit today against Pinal County to stop the county’s ongoing ecological damage to the Bureau of Land Management’s lower San Pedro River conservation area southeast of Phoenix. The suit seeks to revoke the county’s eminent domain seizure of federal property, to limit entry of damaging off-road vehicle traffic, and to stop the county’s dredge-and-fill operations in the river. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Phoenix.

The lawsuit results from Pinal County’s January 31, 2008 seizure of a local ranching family’s private property, which is restricted by a Bureau of Land Management conservation easement. In 1996, the family had sold the conservation easement on its property to protect its rare year-round stream and habitat from cattle grazing and off-road vehicles. The conservation easement restricts motorized access to emergency and administrative use only.

The county used eminent domain seizure to create an unrestricted passageway across the San Pedro River through the conservation area. It did so in local county court proceedings, claiming an “emergency” need to create an unrestricted San Pedro River passageway and testifying that they did not “believe BLM will raise any objection to the condemnation proceeding.”

Only no emergency existed, and the Bureau of Land Management objects.

The conservation easement is federal property. Seizure of federal property by the county violates the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, prohibiting seizure of federal property without federal permission.

The Bureau of Land Management did not approve the county’s seizure; its signs in the conservation area still read “NO MOTORIZED VEHICLES, ADMINISTRATIVE USE ONLY.” Emergency access has never been denied. The lawsuit seeks revocation of the county’s eminent domain seizure of the conservation area.

The county is maintaining the newly unrestricted passageway open to all traffic, including off-road vehicles. Off-road vehicles are now accessing the streambed and stream banks via the passageway. The result is accelerating erosion and destruction of streamside habitat.

The county maintains its newly unrestricted passageway by bulldozing in the stream and by importing fill from outside the area, but the Clean Water Act requires a federal permit prior to dredging and filling in a year-round stream. Pinal County has no permit. The lawsuit seeks an injunction against the county’s dredge-and-fill operations in the river.

The Bureau of Land Management’s lower San Pedro River conservation area is home to an endangered songbird, the Southwestern willow flycatcher, which has been federally protected as endangered since 1995. The Center initiated protective efforts for the flycatcher in 1992. The lower San Pedro River has been designated as federal critical habitat for the flycatcher since 1997.

“We cannot allow Pinal County’s misuse of the eminent domain process to destroy the conservation area. We must protect the Southwestern willow flycatcher and the San Pedro River,” said the Center’s Robin Silver.

“Tucson Audubon has been instrumental in securing international Important Bird Area designation for the lower San Pedro River, including BLM’s conservation area. The area is crucial habitat for recovery of the imperiled Southwestern willow flycatcher, and for the Western yellow-billed cuckoo. It is also an area of global importance for Bell’s vireo. Pinal County’s destructive activities must be halted,” said Tucson Audubon’s Paul Green.

“Maricopa Audubon has a long history of protecting the San Pedro River. Pinal County’s advocacy for wanton ORV abuse in such a sensitive and important conservation preserve is inexcusable,” said Maricopa Audubon’s Herb Fibel.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Maricopa Audubon, and Tucson Audubon are represented by attorney Cliff Levenson of Phoenix and the Center’s Mike Senatore.

Other supporting lawsuit information can be found in Robin Silver’s affidavit.

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