Federal Court ruling sides with Tejon Ranch Co. over species conservation plan

Site west of Neenach where more than 19,000 homes are proposed in Centennial Specific Plan. photo for the Signal by Jeff Zimmerman

A California federal court recently ruled against the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity in a lawsuit challenging the way a habitat conservation plan would affect the California condor in the area where Tejon Ranch Co. plans to develop residential and commercial projects.

Tejon Ranch Co. is planning to expand development across 30,000 acres of its 270,000 acres of land in Los Angeles and Kern counties known as the Tejon Ranch, north of the Santa Clarita Valley. Among those developments is the approved Centennial Project, which calls for 19,000 homes in L.A. County, near the Kern County line. About 128,000 acres within the private property are designated as critical habitat for the condor because the area serves as important foraging habitat, though the condor does not nest there. 

The lawsuit, brought forth by the center against U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Tejon Ranch Co., alleged that Fish & Wildlife failed to adequately acknowledge the effects the Tehachapi Uplands Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan would have on the condor.

The conservation plan is designed primarily to preclude development and protect as open space in perpetuity 91% of the 141,886-acre area located in Tejon Ranch, reads the plan. 

The center argued that Fish & Wildlife violated the National Historic Preservation Act “when it erroneously concluded that the California condor was not a ‘Traditional Cultural Property,’ as defined by NHPA, and failed to conduct an adequate impact and mitigation analysis on the condor’s habitat,” read the ruling. 

U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney’s decision on Dec. 4 ruled the center’s arguments are “unsupported by the record” and noted the center tried to “misleadingly suggest” its position was based on law.

A traditional cultural property is one eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places based on its associations with the cultural practices, traditions and beliefs of a community, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. 

In this case, Fish & Wildlife counter-argued the condor and its habitat did not qualify as one. 

“The USFWS properly noted that the ‘tribal groups that are culturally affiliated with the [area] are the best source of information about TCPs that may occur in the area,” reads the court ruling. “None of these tribal groups indicated that TCPs occurred in the area, which indicates that the USFWS’s determination that no historic properties were affected was reasonable.”

Tejon Ranch Co. issued a news release after the court ruling, highlighting the lawsuit was filed a full six years after the approval of the conservation plan, and just four days prior to the expiration of the time period in which to file a legal challenge.  

“This is not the first time CBD and the other plaintiffs have unsuccessfully attempted to use the courts to delay development on Tejon Ranch, in this instance, the community of Mountain Village, which has already received numerous approvals from local, state and multiple federal agencies,” read the news release, in part. 

In response, the center’s staff attorney J.P. Rose issued the following statement: 

“The court’s ruling, which upholds the unfathomable federal decision to allow Tejon Ranch to harm condors to build an outdated luxury resort, doesn’t change the fact that condors are critically endangered and sacred to native peoples,” he said. “When agencies do things that are so plainly unwise and illegal, we look to the courts for relief. Unfortunately, the court here deferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service despite the agency’s complete lack of expertise regarding the condor’s cultural significance.” 

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