updated 8/24/2005 2:00:18 PM ET 2005-08-24T18:00:18

A federal agency has decided to cut by nearly half the amount of land set aside for a threatened salamander, saying that restricting development in those areas of northern California would be too costly.

Homebuilders applauded the decision, but environmentalists said it would hurt the recovery of the California tiger salamander, a yellow-and-black amphibian that lives in woodlands, grasslands and vernal pools.

The land that was dropped from the critical-habitat designation includes some of the state’s fastest-growing areas, mostly east of San Francisco and in the Central Valley.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s final rule sets aside 199,000 acres in 19 counties as critical habitat, a designation that could prevent or force changes in development plans there. The rule, issued Tuesday, takes effect in about 30 days.

However, the service dropped 184,000 acres that were in an initial proposal last year. The dropped areas include acreage in Alameda, Contra Costa and Monterey counties.

“Reserving acreage as critical habitat just makes it more daunting to build housing that’s affordable,” said Joseph Perkins, CEO of the Home Builders Association of Northern California. “Setting aside habitat is just the least efficient way to protect species.”

Environmentalists said the decision would harm the salamander and would accelerate the loss of open space.

“The plight of California’s natural environment is mirrored by the plight of the salamander,” said Peter Galvin, conservation director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “As the salamander loses its habitat, so too does California lose its precious oak woodlands, grasslands and vernal pools.”

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