Bird's Advocates Challenge Corps

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 8, 2005

A group of environmentalists is trying to block construction of two federal water projects in Arkansas, arguing they could damage the habitat of the highly endangered ivory-billed woodpecker.

The controversy highlights how this year's rediscovery of the distinctive bird could complicate federal initiatives in the area. For years many federal officials and wildlife experts believed the woodpecker was extinct; now they are faced with the question of how to cope with its existence on land used by farmers, shippers and area residents.

After an initial wave of celebration, conservation groups -- which say that the only reason the woodpecker survived this long is because the federal government abandoned a navigation project along Arkansas' Cache River in the 1970s -- say administration officials are risking driving the bird to extinction once again.

Today the National Wildlife Federation and the Arkansas Wildlife Federation are filing a lawsuit in federal district court in Little Rock, challenging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' plans to spend $319 million to take water from the White River and give it to farmers. The Environmental Defense Fund, another advocacy group, plans to issue a policy report soon blasting a nearby Corps transportation project on the White River.

"We are asking the court to stop the rush to judgment by federal agencies more determined to build the irrigation project than to consider the damage it will do to the bottomland hardwood forests where the ivory-bill was found," said David Carruth, president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation. "The ivory-billed woodpecker reminds us that is a very special region. Protecting it means protecting an irreplaceable part of our country's wildlife heritage for future generations."

Federal officials said that while they could not comment in detail on the suit, they were confident that the Grand Prairie irrigation project -- which plans to draw 158 billion gallons annually from the White River and distribute it to about 1,000 area rice farmers -- would not jeopardize the woodpecker's environs. The amount is about 1.5 percent of the river's flow.

"This project has no significant negative environmental impacts," said Jim Bodron, the project manager, adding that failing to complete it would cost local farms as much as $46 million a year. Farmers in eastern Arkansas raise more than 40 percent of the nation's rice.

Bird lovers had not seen the ivory-billed woodpecker in nearly 60 years when Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton announced in late April that researchers had spotted it in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. At the time Norton said, "It is science, alongside on-the-ground conservation, that will give this bird a second chance."

Federal officials have been struggling for several months with how to reconcile their ambitious water projects in the region with the bird's reappearance.

The Corps stopped work on the Grand Prairie project on May 9; two weeks later it issued a biological assessment saying it "is not likely to adversely effect" the woodpecker, which was sighted 20 miles away from the construction. On June 6, the Corps resumed the project, which encompasses 250,000 acres and will take 13 years to complete.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concurred with the Corps' assessment two days after it restarted the project, saying federal engineers should monitor whether the construction was harming the bird's habitat.

"If we find something down the road, they have agreed to adapt their management," said Jeff Fleming, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service's southeast region.

Fleming added that federal officials had joined with private groups, including Ducks Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy, to protect the bird's habitat. "We have hunters and anglers in Arkansas who are fired up about having this bird here," he said.

But John Kostyack, the lead attorney in the Wildlife Federation's suit, said administration officials would undermine these conservation efforts by pressing ahead with the project.

"Both common sense and solid science tell us that withdrawing substantial amounts of water from a habitat can harm the wildlife there," Kostyack said. "The Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged this fact in their own early Grand Prairie reviews [in 2001], noting that changing the hydrology in the Cache River and White River National Wildlife refuges will affect 'overall habitat values there.' "

Environmentalists have lost in two previous lawsuits that were trying to derail the Grand Prairie project, one in state court and one in federal court. They are appealing both decisions and note that each of them occurred before Interior officials announced the woodpecker's rediscovery.

The Environmental Defense Fund is hoping to block a neighboring White River navigation project on similar grounds. The plan would reduce flooding but could drain water from forests. Environmental Defense senior attorney Tim Searchinger said the Corps estimated two years ago that the $30 million channeling effort will generate only between $1 million and $3 million a year in economic benefits.

"We shouldn't risk destroying the last remaining habitat for the ivory-billed woodpecker in the pursuit of extraordinarily marginal projects, at best," Searchinger said.

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