August 16, 2011

Proposed high-speed rail could affect wildlife

For decades, Kole Upton has been rehabilitating injured raptors on his property north of Chowchilla.

But Upton is worried he’s going to lose the 14-acre retreat for his birds because the proposed high-speed rail line would split that land. It would also take his brother’s house, which dates back to the 1930s. The rail line would also remove a Chowchilla Water District canal.

“It goes right through the middle of my property,” said Upton, who grows corn, wheat, almonds and pistachios on his land. Possible impacts on wildlife and plant species are one of several issues highlighted in documents about the potential environmental ripple effects from the construction, operation and maintenance of the 65-mile Merced-to-Fresno section of the proposed project. Upton said the draft EIR statement, which the California High-Speed Rail Authority released last week, “is about what we (farmers) expected.”

Some of the raptors on his property are Swainson’s hawks, birds that could be in danger of losing their habitats if high-speed rail comes through the land. Mitigation efforts include conducting preconstruction surveys for Swainson’s hawks during the nesting season from March 1 to Sept. 15 within the construction blueprint and within a half-mile buffer. And preconstruction nest surveys would be conducted at least 30 days before ground-disturbing activities, according to the draft EIR. The preconstruction surveys would determine the status of the nest, if it’s active or inactive. If active nests are found within that half-mile of the construction blueprint during nesting season, the authority proposes to implement buffers restricting construction activities.

Upton said he also hosts some burrowing owls on his property. For owls, some proposed mitigation measures prior to ground-disturbing activities are conducting surveys during the winter and breeding season within the suitable habitat of the construction habitat and within a 500-foot buffer.

Upton said the Union Pacific Railroad-Highway 99 corridor, one of three alternatives, is the one most farmers agree on. “If it’s a good project and it’s going to be built, then build it according to the rules that existed using existing corridors,” he said. “We’ve given them potential routes and they have shown some interest, especially in the Merced-to-San Jose corridor.”

There has been a cooperative effort between the authority and farmers, he said. “It’s just that a there has been a certain amount of mistrust over the couple of years. We’ve got to protect ourselves,” Upton said.

Upton is vice president of a local group called Preserve Our Heritage that was formed in August last year in the north Madera County and southern Merced County areas by farmers who say they are going to be adversely affected by the project.

The group already has an EIR evaluation lined up to try to protect themselves with legal help from Oakland, he said. Upton said the group will hire experts to help with comments. “We can’t sue until they’ve ignored you in the draft and final EIR,” he said. “They may surprise us all and do things correctly — but their track record hasn’t done that.”

He said suing is the absolute last resort but “in order to sue them you have to have the ducks lined up prior to that. If you do it right, do it right, we’re with you,” Upton said.

Laverne Caldeira, who owns an 125-acre almond farm halfway between Le Grand and Merced, said the proposed rail project would cut through two homes on his property. He said some indigenous birds would be affected, such as robins, sparrows and hawks.

Caldeira said high-speed rail authorities have said the proposed line would have a minimal effect, but he doesn’t see it that way. “When a rail goes through a farm, it’s not following a route that’s compatible with property lines,” Caldeira said.

Rachel Wall, spokeswoman for the authority, said mitigation measures were included in the report, with a breakdown for each type of biological resource. Those include plant and wildlife species, terrestrial and aquatic habitats and more. The authority is seeking public comment on the reports until Sept. 28.

The authority also hopes to receive comments from the Environmental Protection Agency, local wildlife refuges and the Department of Fish and Game.

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsun-star.com.

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