By TIM HEARDEN
A California lawmaker said wardens' "heavy-handedness" in dealing with ranchers could lead to legal actions against the state Department of Fish and Game.
Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said there is recorded testimony of instances in which wardens' threats and other actions in the Scott and Shasta valleys "went way over the top."
"I've long believed this is about power, control over water and money for Fish and Game," Nielsen said. "This is a very fundamental property rights issue. This is one you need to fight all the way."
Nielsen recently hosted a meeting at which ranchers and DFG officials discussed new water diversion permit requirements in the two remote valleys in far Northern California, where the state is trying to protect threatened coho salmon.
Ranchers have complained of wardens visiting their properties and threatening to prosecute landowners who fail to sign up for special blanket incidental take and streambed alteration permits or obtain permits on their own.
Neil Manji, the DFG's regional manager in Redding, Calif., responded that wardens have simply given warnings to residents in much the same way a traffic officer would warn a motorist whose taillight is out.
"There's a misconception that Fish and Game is going in there and laying the law down," Manji said, adding that the agency is simply trying to reach agreements with landowners. "Our whole objective is not to go in and strong-arm them but to let them make the decision they want to make ... and have all their options identified."
The DFG is already facing two lawsuits over its blanket permit plan -- one from the California Farm Bureau Federation claiming the agency is overstepping its authority, and the other from conservation groups asserting the program violates state environmental laws.
Nielsen would not discuss specifics of what additional legal actions may be forthcoming, explaining "I don't want to prejudice that action."
The assemblyman said DFG should be more flexible with planned water cutbacks in the Scott and Shasta valleys and be more sensitive to landowners' rights.
He said he currently has no plans to introduce legislation dealing with the matter, although "I'm certainly not beyond putting in legislation."
"There is already statute on the books about landowner protections and that will be one of the foundational elements in the (Farm Bureau) lawsuit that's proceeding," Nielsen said. "I am just trying to work with the agency and landowners now ... This is a battle that must be won."
Assemblyman Jim Nielsen: http://arc.asm.ca.gov/member/2/
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