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LANDOWNER'S HABITAT RESTORATION PROJECT SHOWS INNOVATIVE APPROACH BENEFITING WILDLIFE AND LANDOWNERS

603,000 Acres of Cottonwood Creek Watershed Affected by Safe Harbor Agreement

April 16, 2007, Redding, Calif. – California's threatened red-legged frog and other species will gain valuable habitat through the voluntary efforts of private landowners, thanks to an innovative conservation tool known as Safe Harbor Agreements. Sustainable Conservation partnered with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Cottonwood Creek Watershed Group to develop a Safe Harbor Agreement that enables landowners to restore habitat in environmentally sound ways, without risking future regulatory action under the Endangered Species Act. The agreement covers the 603,000-acre watershed of Cottonwood Creek, a major tributary of the Sacramento River near Redding, Calif.

"Safe Harbor Agreements can unleash habitat restoration projects on private lands across California and the nation," said Ashley Boren, Executive Director of Sustainable Conservation. "Landowners can engage in projects that build habitat for threatened and endangered species without concern that their actions today might lead to land use restrictions tomorrow. This is a win for wildlife and a win for landowners."

With more than half of California's land in private hands, the survival of threatened and endangered species depends heavily on the stewardship of private landowners. Safe Harbor Agreements are an increasingly popular tool that encourage private landowners to undertake voluntary conservation and restoration projects.

Chuck Lema, owner of Lema ranch along Cottonwood Creek and the first landowner to enroll in the program, said, "Through this program, I repaired an eroded steam bank on my property and am planting native riparian vegetation to stabilize it. I'm improving five acres of habitat for the California red-legged frog and other wildlife, and at the same time improving water quality downstream. The project makes sense to me as a landowner, and the Safe Harbor Agreement protects me from any regulatory surprises in the future."

"This first project is part of a larger effort to improve environmental conditions in and around Cottonwood Creek, and we expect many more landowners to sign up," said Vieva Swearingen of the Cottonwood Creek Watershed Group. "We now have 30 local landowners taking part in a survey of their lands by biologists to determine if California red-legged frogs are residing there and what habitat restoration projects may benefit them."

The Cottonwood Creek agreement is the first in the Sacramento Valley and only the second in California that is "programmatic" – that is, it covers a large area with multiple landowners. Most Safe Harbor Agreements cover just one property. Besides Chuck Lema, more than 2,000 landowners in the Cottonwood Creek watershed are eligible to enroll under the agreement.

Susan Moore, field supervisor in charge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Service's Sacramento office, said, "Safe Harbor Agreements give the Fish and Wildlife Service a way to work collaboratively with landowners, local watershed groups and environmental organizations to achieve conservation goals. Our role is to ensure that the proposed restoration projects provide net environmental benefits for listed species, including the California red-legged frog."

Cottonwood Creek is the largest undammed tributary in the northern Central Valley of California. It provides important spawning and nursery areas for listed species including, Spring-run chinook salmon (federal and state listed as Threatened); Central Valley steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss, federally listed as threatened), as well as fall and late fall run chinook salmon (federal listed as candidate species). The 603,000-acre Cottonwood Creek watershed (located in Shasta and Tehama counties) also contains several other federally listed species (either known to occur, or, at minimum, has habitat for the species), including northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina, Federally threatened), Valley elderberry longhorn beetle (federally threatened) and bald eagle (federally threatened), as well as several State listed species of concern.

The Cottonwood Creek Safe Harbor Agreement was written by Sustainable Conservation with coordination and review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It was signed by the Service and the Cottonwood Creek Watershed Group. It provides for the creation of a program administered by Cottonwood Creek Watershed Group in which private landowners will restore, enhance and maintain aquatic and riparian habitat beneficial to the California red-legged frog. The Safe Harbor Agreement will be used in conjunction with an ongoing scientific research and monitoring project to assess the occurrence and population density of the California red-legged frog on private property at the northern boundary of its current range.

The Safe Harbor Agreement approach was first offered through Environmental Defense in 1999, and now Sustainable Conservation is launching partnerships with landowners and government agencies across California to implement this powerful model.

"We hope that landowners take advantage of this new option and undertake restoration projects that benefit wildlife," said Boren. "Sustainable Conservation is actively seeking out California projects and shepherding them through the process, while we also develop long-term policies and practices so that Safe Harbor Agreements can be easily replicated in any part of the country. This approach can be used for any species – from spotted owls to salmon to salamanders – and any kind of habitat. It's an exciting opportunity to implement projects that benefit both wildlife and landowners."

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