Salamander Protection Deal in Sonoma County Vineyards Builds on Licensing Streamlining

The origins of a new public-private solution to the long-standing environmental problem facing Sonoma County grape growers operating in a critical habitat for the endangered California tiger salamander can be traced to recent reforms to provincial erosion control permits at vineyard projects.

Under an agreement with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the North Bay Water District will oversee a program in which participating winery owners who have adopted and implemented best practices to maintain or add salamander habitats can prevent third parties are being sued for “incidental” of the rare amphibian under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The deal also provides participating growers with the assurance that vineyard operations can continue without additional permits.

The Fish and Wildlife Service listed the salamander population in Sonoma County as endangered in March 2003. Soon after, the agency designated much of the Santa Rosa Plain as critical habitat. That created a regulatory system that required expensive studies and special permits for farming and many other activities in the area.

The most affected traits were near breeding grounds of the species in seasonal wetlands and existing ponds or reservoirs, along with surrounding areas at higher elevations.

The associated regulatory requirements placed an additional burden on farmers, who found their ability to make unilateral changes in land management limited to protect salamanders.

“Many people may not understand that vineyards have a longevity,” said Mike Martini, an owner of Taft Street Winery and executive director of Sonoma Alliance for Vineyards and the Environment, or SAVE, a group representing about two dozen vintners seeking the permit. streamline process.

The viability of commercial vines generally spans 25 to 35 years, Martini said. Then growers can look for replacements for vines whose fruit yield or quality is decreasing or consumer demand is shifting.

More than three years ago, SAVE began addressing the regulatory challenge.

Early last year, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved revisions to the Vineyard Erosion and Sediment Control Ordinance, or VESCO, which included best management practices for listed species, namely the salamander. Those include compensation for a targeted vine replacement technique called “pick and plant,” which disturbs little soil.

Those practices became part of the framework for the 31 practices that became part of the safe harbor agreement reached by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the North Bay Water District in June.

Practices vary based on a vineyard’s proximity to a known breeding area. For example, it is not allowed to pump, whether or not for irrigation, frost protection, from natural or engineered ponds that have become breeding grounds.

Sonoma County Farm Bureau will assist the water district in conducting land assessments to assess land management practices and habitat for participating vineyards.

Every grower who enters into a cooperation agreement with the water board must report to the water board before 31 January each year. The district compiles these reports and submits them to the Fish and Wildlife Service within two months.

The cooperation agreements have a duration of 50 years and can be extended. Growers can try to terminate the agreement after 10 years for hardship reasons.

“We actually think this is the best way for conservation to work,” said Mike Fris, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Sacramento. “If we can find ways to come to agreements that work for economic development, work for conservation, that’s a win for everyone. We like this kind of thing and I would like to do more of this kind of thing with landowners who are willing to work with us.”

Meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors made additional funds available in July for an exploratory phase of a regional conservation plan.

“Once developed and implemented, the Habitat Conservation Plan/Natural Communities Conservation Plan will provide a streamlined compliance path for projects that would otherwise be delayed by the regulatory agency’s rigorous, complicated and time-consuming approval process for endangered species,” Bradley Dunn, Policy Manager for Permit Sonoma, the provincial planning agency. “This streamlining is achieved by pre-developing mitigation and conservation standards for specific development projects, avoiding time-consuming project-by-project assessment.”

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before coming to the Business Journal in 1999, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. Reach him at or 707-521-4256.

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