|Tiger salamander gets involved in casino process
It’s January 2011, and that means another year of active protests for Stop the Casino 101 Coalition, major opponents of the proposed casino and resort hotel just west of Rohnert Park city limits on Wilfred Avenue.
They’ve already enlisted another ally, the Center for Biological Diversity based in Arizona with regional offices in several cities nationwide, including San Francisco. The bone of contention they’ve raised is the casino’s impact on tiger salamander habitat in Sonoma County.
This is good news for Chip Worthington, one of the leaders and articulate spokesman for the Coalition. He’s the Pastor of the Assembly of God Church on Snyder Lane.
“We have to hold their feet to the fire and we already have two lawsuits on the edge of being filed,” he said at a lunchtime chat in a Cotati Mexican restaurant.
Casino EIR should be re-done
“Our hope is a judge will say the Casino Environmental Impact Report dealing with the tiger salamander is based on obsolete data from nine years ago and new data has been compiled from newer research.
“We also have lawsuits planned on sewer capacity, water supply, pollution of the Laguna and traffic,” he added. And we believe the City of Rohnert Park should renegotiate the Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU) they did eight years ago, everything’s different now.”
Worthington admitted it will be a long struggle. “These lawsuits could take two to four years before any decision’s handed down. The casino’s a complex issue. It’s not a black and white case, there are many shades of gray involved. But once the word gets out about them, we’re hoping other environmental groups will join with us.”
Salamander’s well-known here
The tiger salamander is a familiar subject for newspaper readers in Rohnert Park and Cotati. Tiger salamanders in the county are much-talked about but seldom seen. They spend the majority of their lives underground and emerge only during rainy and dark winter nights when the males come out to fertilize eggs laid down by females in drainage ditches, creeks and vernal pools.
They are not to be confused with the common fence lizard. The salamander’s range extends down to Monterey County where it meets a similar, but separate species.
But they made their presence well-known when developers Monahan Pacific, of San Rafael proposed plans for a mixed use project of stores and housing on their holdings near Lowe’s Home Improvement along the north side of Gravenstein Highway.
Opponents of the Monahan Pacific multi-acre project brought up the imperiled tiger salamander. The project was ultimately approved but the worldwide economic recession has thus far stalled any construction.
County’s plan to protect it
The tiger salamander’s status brought Sonoma County forces out to deal with the problem. Many conferences were held with agricultural groups individual farmers, building trade leaders, developers, Board of Supervisor representatives, Sonoma County Water Agency, Fish and Game officials from Sacramento and other involved groups.
Out of these confabs a sort of a checker board pattern was approved for the entire Santa Rosa Plain to protect the tiger salamander. Since then, the controversy seemed to drop from public view.
But now, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has brought up the salamander in its alliance with Stop the Casino 101’s continuing campaign.
New allies take action
In a letter to the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) in Washington and Fish and Wildlife Service in Sacramento, Collette Giese, staff attorney for CBD, said, “(There’s a) need for a conference on Graton Rancheria casino and hotel project to discuss impacts on proposed critical habitat for the California tiger salamander.”
She added, “Even though critical habitat has been proposed (the one hammered out by ad hoc county conferences) for the Sonoma County population of the California tiger salamander, the NIGC has not sought to confer with Fish and Wildlife Service on how the casino project would affect the proposed critical habitat. The Center urges the NIGC to immediately initiate a conference, as required by the Endangered Species Act... furthermore, FWS must assess whether the current mitigation ratios are appropriate in light of the proposed critical habitat designation.”
Worthington even braved the storm and flooding during the disastrous New Year’s Eve and Day flooding several years back, to show a film he made of a flooded Wilfred Avenue to the RP City Council.
Calls to Greg Sarris, chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria were not returned as of Community Voice deadline. Station Casino officials said no one was available to respond due to the busy holiday season in Las Vegas.
In March 2010, Stop the Casino 101 Coalition put the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) on notice about the critical habitat issue, and asked for further action to be taken.. A few months later in August, we asked NIGC Chairwoman Tracie Stevens to delay issuing her Record of Decision on the casino environmental study until after the critical habitat area had been finalized in 2011. Both letters were ignored.
The new Graton Rancheria trust land is one of the largest continuous pieces of vernal wetlands left on the Santa Rosa Plain, and is deserving of conservation. There were many other locations that would have been more suitable for development, but long before the site was purchased, tribal leadership refused to heed warnings about the sensitive environmental nature of the site and refused to reconsider its choice.
The irony is that an excellent study by Parsons Engineering had already been done on the site months before the former owner, Dennis Hunter, sold his portion of the land to the FIGR. That report made it very clear that the numerous environmental issues at what is now the casino footprint site would make it very expensive and difficult, if not impossible, to mitigate the negative impacts.