Federal officials joined Tejon Ranch Co. Friday in announcing a 141,866-acre habitat conservation plan that gives the company assurance that its proposal for a large resort community in Lebec complies with the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Under the plan, called the Tehachapi Uplands Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan, 129,000 acres on the ranch will be permanently conserved, including a 37,100-acre ridge line area set aside as a condor study area.
At a ceremonial signing event outside Tejon's Lebec headquarters, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Dan Ashe, said the plan allows the company to "harass" but not kill California condors and 24 other species in the course of its operations across 52 percent of the 270,000-acre ranch.
The conservation plan is the product of 15 years' work by Tejon Ranch and its Arizona-based development partner, DMB Pacific Ventures LLC. It complements a 2008 accord preserving 240,000 acres, or 90 percent of the ranch, in exchange for several environmental groups' pledge not to oppose the company's development plans on the other 10 percent of the property.
Fish and Wildlife officials said that while many details remain to be worked out, the important thing is that condors and other species will be protected, and that the federal government will get a "seat at the table" as Tejon and DMB move forward with their development plans.
Tejon Ranch, a publicly traded company traditionally focused on farming and ranching, has become increasingly involved in real estate development. Its Tejon Mountain Village project in Lebec is fully entitled and ready for construction as soon as the company decides that market conditions are right.
While federal and ranch officials hailed the plan for increasing protection to two dozen species, critics say it doesn't address the loss of condor habitat with the planned development. They contend the biggest threats to condors are lead poisoning and the loss of foraging and roosting spaces on the ranch.
Adam Keats, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued to prevent development, called the plan "a joke."
"There's no habitat conservation happening. It's a habitat destruction plan," he said.
Pushed nearly to the brink of extinction in the 1980s, California condor numbers increased after the last wild ones were trapped and taken to zoos for a breeding program. Many of the California condors in the state use Tejon as a foraging ground.
Besides the California condor, species covered under the plan include the least bell's vireo, Southwestern willow flycatcher, Western yellow-billed cuckoo, Tehachapi slender salamander and bald eagle.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.