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Western governors unveil wildlife maps

RENO, Nev. — Governors in 16 states unveiled a high-tech wildlife habitat
mapping project Thursday that they hope will encourage economic development
across the West while protecting the region’s environmental treasures _ an
ambitious effort that’s winning praise from conservationists and the energy

The Western Governors’ Association wants to make it easier to chart paths
across large landscapes where developers can expect the least regulatory
resistance and threat of litigation as they draft plans to build highways, dig
gold mines and erect power lines, pipelines or wind farms.

Five years in the making, the database will connect 16 western states from
California and Alaska to Montana and Oklahoma with a first-of-its-kind online
system of colorful GIS maps displaying wildlife habitat, wetlands and other
valuable natural resources _ much of it detailed down to square-mile increments.

The Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool, or CHAT, provides layers of data that rate
the resources on a scale of one to six, from most to least “crucial.”
Individual states determine those priorities based on their information about
such things as the condition of the habitat and the individual species’ economic
and recreational importance.

“The governors’ intent back in 2008 really was to cater to industries within
their states who need data while at the same time conserving the resources the
states are blessed with and the governors are charged with preserving,” said
Carlee Brown, policy manager for the Western Governors Association.

“It’s going to provide that first look _ a 30,000-foot view of the situation
on the ground. It’s meant to be a starting point for states with different
priorities and different resource needs to bring all their information
together,” she told The Associated Press before the WGA announced details of
the effort Thursday at its annual winter gathering in Las Vegas.

“If I’m a transportation planner working in Walla Walla, Wash., and I want to
modify a highway for safety concerns along the Washington-Oregon border, I can
look at different routes and draw different lines to see what kind of crucial
habitat I run into, and where it ranks on the scale of one to six,” Brown said.

The Energy Department provided a $3 million grant and individual states
contributed the time of mapping specialists the past three years to help gather,
organize and input the information, said Joe Rassenfoss, WGA’s communications
director. It’s expected to be especially helpful for projects that may encounter
species of concern in multiple states, like the northern spotted owl in the
Pacific Northwest, the sage grouse in the Great Basin or the prairie chicken in
the Southwest.

“It’s the one-stop shopping feature that is so powerful about CHAT,” he said.

Energy industry leaders agreed.

“That did not previously exist,” said Robert Veldman, senior environmental
adviser for the Houston-based Noble Energy Inc., which drills for oil and gas in
the Rocky Mountains and the Gulf of Mexico, and recently starting exploration in

“It will be instrumental in supporting Noble Energy’s commitment to protecting
wildlife and their habitats, particularly during project planning,
infrastructure route selection and in doing due diligence for acquisitions and
divestitures,” Veldman said.

Brown said conservation groups and land trusts have expressed interest in the
data to help make decisions about prioritizing protection of wildlife or
purchasing property most valuable to their preservation mission.

“It provides a common footing for the public and a wide array of stakeholders
who are interested in land use,” said Rob Mrowka, an ex-Forest Service
supervisor who now works as a senior scientist for the nonprofit Center for
Biological Diversity in Arizona.

“It integrates the various mapping systems and databases across state
boundaries. To me, that is the quantum leap forward,” he told AP after watching
the unveiling of the project in Las Vegas.

California, Montana, Washington, Wyoming and Kansas already are utilizing their
own state databases. Nevada rolled out its new maps Thursday in concert with the
regional package, with New Mexico and Oregon to follow later this month.

The other states are at various stages of compiling their data _ Alaska,
Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Oklahoma, Nebraska, South Dakota and Utah.

“Mining companies like to say, `The gold is where the gold is, that’s where we
need to go,”’ said Chet Van Dellen, GIS coordinator for Nevada’s Department of
Wildlife. “We like to say the animals are where the animals are.”

The “crucial habitat” is not to be confused with critical habitat, a legal
term when it comes to protecting wildlife under the Endangered Species Act.

Developers and U.S. regulators still must complete environmental assessments as
required by the National Environmental Policy Act. But the habitat maps
themselves carry no regulatory authority, and developers will be free to pursue
projects regardless of what shows up in the path of their projects, although
sometimes with a healthy price tag.

“It really is a pro-development tool,” Van Dellen said. “We’re just letting
you know if that’s the piece of ground you are going to commit to, you might
expect a bumpier ride than a smoother ride. If you go this way, you are going to
cross all this important stuff, but if you go this way, you are not.”


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