The Bush administration is seeking to temporarily end habitat protections for 19 populations of salmon and steelhead in four Western states, which could open the areas to greater development.
In a proposed settlement entered in federal court Monday, the National Marine Fisheries Service said it will eliminate and then revise the protections to settle lawsuits filed by the Association of California Water Agencies, National Association of Home Builders and 16 other groups of developers and local governments.
Jim Lecky, the service's Southwest regional administrator for protected resources, said the fish still will be protected under the Endangered Species Act while the habitat provisions are reworked, a process that could take roughly two years.
The developers and local governments filed suit, arguing the protections were "excessive, unduly vague, not justified as essential" and "not based upon a required analysis of economic impacts."
Duane Desiderio of the homebuilders' association said his group sees value in such habitat protection, but added: "We just want the government to do it right."
Environmentalists say President Bush is going against his campaign promise to help save the endangered fish and that the proposed settlement is part of a larger campaign to roll back environmental protections enacted under President Clinton.
"It sounds like they are giving the home builders a pass," said Nicole Cordan, policy and legal director for Save Our Wild Salmon.
An environmental group, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, has asked to intervene in the case and planned to file an objection to the settlement on behalf of environmental and fishing industry groups.
Critical habitat designations are one of the most controversial provisions of the Endangered Species Act. In some cases, they allow the National Marine and Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service to limit or block activities in the areas if threatened or endangered species may be harmed.
The critical habitat provisions for the salmon and steelhead were issued by the Clinton administration in February 2000. They outlined safeguards for populations of chinook, chum, coho and sockeye salmon and covered a wide swath of land, touching 150 watersheds, river segments, bays and estuaries in Washington, Oregon, California and Idaho, including metropolitan areas like Seattle and Portland.
The Fish and Wildlife Service also said recently that it plans to review, and in some cases set aside, critical habitat designations for up to 10 other endangered species in the West.
The government's proposal to eliminate the protections stems from a decision in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals requiring the federal agencies to do a better job analyzing the economic impact of the critical habitat protections.
U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, based in the District of Columbia, will decide whether to grant the motion for settlement.