The threatened Swainson’s hawk

South Valley environmental groups have been fuming behind the scenes at the County of Kern over a 2,732-acre agricultural mitigation plan that is supposed to benefit the threatened Swainson’s hawk.

This afternoon that debate will go public before the Kern County Board of Supervisors.

In 2012 the county was given $14.3 million by developers of the Antelope Valley Solar Project to mitigate the damage building the solar field would do to habitat for the Swainson’s hawk.

The county hasn’t been able to spend it.

Kern County Planning and Community Development Director Lorelei Oviatt said the county had planned to purchase land near Onyx in the Kern River Valley but another buyer landed the property instead.

So Kern County has been hunting for replacement property since then.

“We admit we took time to do this,” she said.

Ovaitt said the county has found six suitable agricultural properties spread from Arvin to Kern County’s northern boundary west of Delano and agreed to pay $11.4 million to the property owners for conservation easements on the land.

Occupied hawk nests are located within 10 miles of each property, according to a biologist’s report the county obtained.

The easements guarantee, she said, that the land would remain cultivated with Swainson’s hawk friendly crops for the next 30 years.

The Swainson’s hawk is a small hawk that traditionally hunts in grasslands.

Oviatt said the hawk has adapted best to agricultural lands developed with row crops like alfalfa and carrots.

“The change over to orchards has been tough for the hawk,” she said.

But environmental groups, in letters to the county, have complained that the county needed to establish the mitigation property in the Antelope Valley, not the Central Valley.

Camdilla Wirth, a biologist with the Sequoia Riverlands Trust in Visalia, wrote that six of the 22 parcels under consideration by the county are unsuitable for the Swainson’s hawk because they have orchard properties on them.

But Jim Estep, the county’s biologist, said his review of all the parcels involved showed the land was all suitable for Swainson’s Hawk foraging.

And he noted that a mapping error in one map showed 40 acres of orchard in the mitigation area even though it was not included.

Gordon Nipp of the Sierra Club pointed out that the Antelope Valley Solar Project displaced a colony of Swainson’s hawk and the county’s long delay and decision to choose land in the Central Valley as mitigation is not truly fixing that impact.

Oviatt said the county could not find enough appropriate agricultural mitigation land in the Antelope Valley with the funding it had, land owners opposed the easements and — with statewide groundwater restrictions coming — it was uncertain if land the county would target there would be cultivated long enough.

Nipp, in a Community Voices piece in The Californian, criticized the county’s decision to absorb into its depleted general fund the $3 million difference between the $14.3 million in mitigation money it received from the solar development and the $11.4 million price it negotiated for the easements in the Central Valley portion of the county.

Supervisors will take up the debate at 2 p.m. today in Kern County Board of Supervisors’ chambers on the first floor of the Kern County Administrative Building at 1115 Truxtun Ave.

James Burger can be reached at 661‑395-7415. Follow him on Twitter: @KernQuirks.

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