Competing interests weigh bird's fate Experimental plan tries to aid species


LOS ANGELES -- In a turning point in federal policy, the Clinton administration entered into collaboration with California, lTC private developers and conservationists yesterday to avert economic clashes over environmental protection.

The instrument of this collaboration was a small songbird, the California gnatcatcher, that few Southern Californians have ever seen. And the scene at a news conference in Washington, where the agreement was announced, was extraordinary: Environmentalists and their archenemies in the housing industry looked on in approval as Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt declared the bird a threatened species -- with a new twist.

Under a special proposed rule, developers would be exempt from laws against damaging the bird's habitat if they agreed to cooperate in a state plan to preserve enough of the bird's essential ecosystem to permit it to survive. The hope is that this plan will also protect as many as 50 other local plants and animals before they become endangered, avoiding future protracted litigation.

Mr. Babbitt acted on a seldom-used provision of the 20-year-old Endangered Species Act that allows the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a "special rule" when a species is listed as "threatened" rather than "endangered," a more serious category. The law makes it illegal to hunt, trap, kill or otherwise harass a threatened species, but permits exceptions.

Ultimately, the state, in consultation with local governments and developers, plans to set aside 12 preserves for the gnatcatcher in four counties, allowing construction on the rest of the land.

"This is a bold new step for protecting endangered species," said John Sawhill, president of the Nature Conservancy. "It looks at a whole ecosystem rather than individual species and gives significant involvement to state and local governments. It's going to be a model for other states."

While the ecosystem concept has been used in central Texas and elsewhere, yesterday's federal action represented a milestone because it delegated considerable authority to state and local governments in protecting threatened species.

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