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SAN JUAN SUIT MAY DELAY CONDOR REINTRODUCTION

San Juan County has filed a federal lawsuit that could temporarily ground plans to reintroduce the California condor into the wilds of southern Utah and northern Arizona.

Commissioner Bill Redd said a distrust of the federal government prompted the action, which is asking that the condor release program be placed on hold until the county's concerns are answered.The lawsuit, filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, demands that the county's concerns be resolved and that commissioners be fully informed of release plans, which involved the release of up to nine condors in the Vermilion Cliffs of northern Arizona.

Among other things, the commission wants the Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement and more public hearings before the condors are released. Up to this point, the FWS has conducted a less stringent environmental assessment of the birds' impact.

The legal challenge could ground the plans for the rest of the year and perhaps longer.

The county alleges there has been inadequate study of the impact of the release of the rare birds, and that the county has not been kept fully informed of the service's plans.

Redd said the FWS's stated plan to accommodate area residents in the process is a good one, but that he doesn't buy it. He believes the government has reneged on environmental deals in the past and sees no reason to think things will be different this time.

"I don't know who they think they're kidding," Redd said. "The idea is for the federal government to become the zoning power and take that away from states and counties."

Despite the lawsuit, negotiations over the release are continuing and the FWS hopes to meet a mid-July release date.

Federal officials have worked hard to resolve the land-use fears expressed by Redd, said Robert Mesta, FWS condor program coordinator. He said officials discussed the proposal with the Southeastern Utah Association of Local Governments, of which San Juan is a member.

"I'm confident that over the life of the project, or even the first couple years, we'll prove we're going to be good neighbors," Mesta said.

Release proponents cite the opportunity for viewing the large scavengers and the boost they could give tourism.

And the FWS has said the reintroduced population's designation as "nonessential, experimental" will prevent the government from imposing the kinds of restrictions Redd is worried about.

Meantime, finishing touches are being applied to an agreement between local community representatives and federal officials.