Owl Dilemma Delays School Construction Near Tucson

By Mark Jennings — April 12, 2000 4 min read

Although the pygmy owl is modest in size, it has been able to slow down bulldozers and confound a school system. As a result of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to add the creature to the endangered-species list in March 1997, environmentalists and developers in a southwest Arizona county are waging a battle, and a local school district is on the front line.

Since 1998, the Amphitheater district in Pima County has sought to build a new high school, but legal challenges to the land the district chose have tied the project up in the courts. Though the district has won in the federal courts and construction is moving forward, permit challenges by environmental groups are still threatening to delay the school’s opening.

The desert climate of Pima County was once an ideal habitat for the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, but urban sprawl in bustling Tucson and its neighboring jurisdictions have have destroyed more than 90 percent of the owl’s natural environment.

At 6 inches tall, weighing an average of 2.2 ounces, the owl grows only slightly larger than a sparrow. Bird-watchers identify the creature by its rusty brown- and white-feathered coat, cream-colored belly, and long tail. Last year, only 39 of the birds were found in the entire state, according to Jeff Humphrey of the federal wildlife agency’s Phoenix office.

Education vs. Owls?

In 1998, overcrowding had become a contentious issue for the 16,000-student Amphitheater district. Canyon del Oro High School, outside of Tucson, was filled to capacity with 2,500 students, and district officials had cobbled together options to make the most of the space available. “They switched to 90-minute block schedules and added portable classrooms to their north campus,” said Rob Raine, the spokesman for the Amphitheater schools.

To ease classroom congestion, the district decided to break ground on a new high school. Construction began in March 1998, but halted when the Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity, two national environmental organizations that work to protect wild animals and plants, filed suit in behalf of the pygmy owl.

Though school officials claimed that a survey of the land had not found a single owl, the two groups contended the district was building on a protected plot inhabited by the owls, in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

A two-year fight in the federal courts ensued. The original lawsuit, decided by U.S. District Judge Frank Zapata in Tucson, and an appeal by the Defenders of Wildlife that was decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, both went in the district’s favor.

The legal dispute delayed construction and divided local residents. Some saw the debate as a clash between education and extremism.

But the environmental groups didn’t see it that way.

“The issue for us is not ‘education versus owls,’ and that’s what we tried to highlight from the beginning,” said Rachele Condor, a legal fellow for the Arizona office of the Defenders of Wildlife. “If education were the main point, the school system could have built on alternative sites that they determined during the trial were less endangering to the environment.”

According to Mr. Raine, “The decisions stated that the construction of the high school would not harm or harass any pygmy owls.”

Bumpy Road Ahead

With the court on its side, the district resumed construction last December. The new high school could open in 2001 and would begin operation by absorbing 800 students from the current rosters of 7th and 8th graders at a middle school and two K-8 schools. If completed, it will be the first new school in the Amphitheater system in 36 years. However, the legal fight may not be over.

The Defenders of Wildlife group maintains that because of the lengthy legal battle, the district now does not have its water permits fully updated. “We may consider further legal cases against the school district in the near future,” Ms. Condor said.

“After a long, drawn-out effort, the school district did apply for a permit [under the Clean Water Act] within the past two weeks,” Terry Oda, a manager in the permits office of the EPA’s San Francisco branch, said last week. It will take at least three months for the agency to review the application, and a public hearing must be held.

In the EPA’s view, the school does not have permission to proceed with construction until the permits are updated, Mr. Oda said.

Nevertheless, lawyers for the school say otherwise, and so construction is moving forward, according to Mr. Raine.

Because of the number of disputes between developers and conservationists in Pima County, Tucson is working to devise a plan that will provide a forum to air and resolve environmental, social, and economic concerns.

This pleases William Shaw, a professor at the University of Arizona and the chairman of its wildlife and fisheries science department who is helping craft the plan. He believes the solution to the Amphitheater impasse—and others like it—can’t be found in the courts.

“Society needs land and space for many things, including our homes, churches, schools, transportation systems, and our desire to preserve biological diversity,” he said. “Unless as a community we get better organized and do a better job of comprehensive planning, we will see the same dilemma with species after species.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Owl Dilemma Delays School Construction Near Tucson