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Move To Protect Bird Worries Some

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas (AP) — A sand-colored bird on spindly legs is at the center of a stormy debate along the nation's southern shoreline.

The U.S. government is proposing to set aside vast stretches of seashore from Texas to North Carolina to protect the endangered piping plover.

Generally, builders would have to seek environmental clearance to erect homes and seawalls, lay roads or replenish eroded beaches. If development is approved at all, it will probably be costlier and slower.

Beach communities along the 1,672 miles of coast fear the proposal will mean the extinction of their tourist trade.

There's got to be a happy medium where we can survive on tourism but protect the environment at the same time,'' Padre Island developer Richard Franke said. ``It's nice to have beach for the birds, but there's got to be something for the public. People have to make a living.''

Sierra Club spokesman Jim Chapman called the complaints shortsighted.

``Part of what draws people to the island is nature and ocean and wildlife,'' he said. ``If those aren't protected, they'll be lost.''

The government says beach towns have nothing to fear. Still, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledges mapping critical habitat for the birds using outdated and incomplete biological data, and without thoroughly studying the financial effect on communities.

``There is a bit of a broad-brush approach to this designation,'' field supervisor Allan Strand told irate Padre Islanders at a hearing this week. ``There was a time constraint. We used the best data we had available.''

Piping plovers are about 7 inches long, puffy and marked with a black neck band. They have bright orange legs. The birds nest on the Atlantic Coast, the Northern Great Plains and the Great Lakes region, and migrate south for the winter. Biologists estimate 5,600 piping plovers remain.

The problem of critical habitat should have been hashed out back in 1986, when the government listed the bird as endangered. But the wildlife service missed its own deadline by 13 years and counting.

An environmental group, Defenders of Wildlife, finally sued over the delay, and a federal court ordered the wildlife service to set aside land no later than April 30, 2001.

Padre Island's main drag is a jumble of hotels, surf shops and dune buggy rental places. Tourism is virtually the only industry.

And business is booming: The city had more than 3.5 million overnight visitors last year. In less than 10 years, the city's sales tax revenue rose from $500,000 in 1990 to $1.6 million in 1999.

Islanders fear the government will interfere with the continued building of restaurants, roads and resorts.

Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Elizabeth Slown said that the number of construction projects that would be halted on protected land is ``just minuscule.''

But the Endangered Species Act gives the government fairly broad power over land designated critical to a species' habitat. And property values tend to drop near critical habitat, the wildlife service acknowledges.

On the Florida tourist mecca Marco Island, residents have written 4,000 letters imploring the government to change its mind. Shopowners and residents scraped together $40,000 to hire lawyers and consultants. The City Council kicked in an additional $30,000.

``This is just big government against the people,'' said Monte Lazarus, a retired Marco Island lawyer. ``People come here to enjoy the flora and the fauna. If they think we're going to destroy that, they're crazy.''

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