MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The bald eagle has made a great comeback since the government first declared it endangered 40 years ago, more than 9,000 eagle pairs now nest in the lower 48 states. So the federal government is planning to take the eagle off the endangered species list. But biologists worry about the bird's future. Most bald eagles on the East Coast nest on private land.

And as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, eagles and people are competing more for the same waterfront property.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: When Terrell Bowers first visited this property on a cliff overlooking the Rappahannock River it was love at first sight.

NORRIS: I came out and it was a beautiful day like this, only in springtime, and I just knew I had to get it somehow.

SHOGREN: So what was it that drew you to it?

NORRIS: Oh, the view and the quiet. We'll go up here and look. It's a - you can see for miles up here.

SHOGREN: We walked to the edge of what's called Fones Cliffs. Bowers owns more than a half-mile of this gorgeous formation. This spot in northeastern Virginia is incredibly popular with eagles. One glides right over our heads.

NORRIS: I believe that's adolescent.

SHOGREN: The young bird has mixed white and brown feathers.

NORRIS: Up here on the cliff, you can actually look down on them sometimes when they're flying. That's really neat. They can be real peaceful and just riding the wind, or they can go after a fish and get more aggressive. And they're something.

SHOGREN: Three or four more fly past while we're talking. Biologists say this place is extraordinary eagle habitat. There's plenty of fish and loads of geese and ducks. So hundreds of bald eagles from Canada and New England spend the winters around here, feasting; and hundreds more fly up from Florida in the summer. The cliffs also are beloved by paddlers and even tour guides know about them.

NORRIS: There's a tour boat that comes up here. And hear the man on the mike, over here I got a bald eagle and...

SHOGREN: Listening to Bowers, it's hard to imagine that he's become a bit of a villain to eagle lovers. He's in a pitch battle with them over the future of Fones Cliffs.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

SHOGREN: Experts say the cliffs are one of the many places up and down the East Coast where people are now vying with eagles for choice waterfront property. Bryan Watts is an eagle biologist at the College of William and Mary.

NORRIS: It turns out that currently about 80 percent of the breeding population that we have in the Chesapeake Bay is on private land, and so it's pretty clear that the future of the bald eagle in the Chesapeake Bay will really be up to private landowners.

SHOGREN: The fight over Fones Cliffs isn't a typical case of developer versus environmentalist. That's because Terrell Bowers, the owner, actually has been trying to conserve his land and make some money while he's at it. Ironically, he said government policies designed to save eagles are taking away his incentive to protect the cliffs.

NORRIS: There are people out there who are so passionate about eagles that they lose sight of people. They don't acknowledge that there is a right to do something with your land.

SHOGREN: Not long ago, Bowers was trying to put his land into something called a conservation easement. In return for protecting the land, he'd get a big tax break or maybe even a cash payment from a nearby wildlife refuge run by the U.S. government.

NORRIS: They write you a check for it.

SHOGREN: The government paid a nearby property owner almost $2 million for an eagle easement. The size of Bowers' check would depend on the value of his land, and that value rests on how many houses his county, Richmond County, will let an owner build. Until recently, the county said Bowers probably had room for 100 houses on his 260-acre property. But then Bowers said the county changed the rules.

NORRIS: Theoretically, before that zoning ordinance changed I could do one lot per two and a half acres, and then the zoning ordinance change came into play. And overnight I went from 104 down to eight.

SHOGREN: Bowers says his property lost something like 90 percent of its value.

NORRIS: It took my breath away. It was staggering.

SHOGREN: Then Bowers fought back. He asked the county to let him divide his land into 50 lots, and he started entertaining offers from developers.

NORRIS: A year ago, I wanted to do my conservation easement, now I want to get my value back.

SHOGREN: The county board of supervisors considered his request last month. The meeting was packed with eagle lovers. The manager of the federal wildlife refuge spoke against Bowers' proposal; so did biologist Bryan Watts. He says Fones Cliffs should never be developed.

NORRIS: It is so incredibly important to eagles along the entire Atlantic Coast that, at least in my view, it rises to the level of some of our most prized historic sites.

SHOGREN: The board listened, and then rejected Bowers' request.

Bowers says he doesn't blame the eagles.

NORRIS: No, because it's not the eagles, it's the people. You know, they just holler so much about it that finally you get tired of hearing it. It's like it becomes a symbol not of liberty but of government bureaucracy going awry.

SHOGREN: Bowers says he has no idea what he'll do. But he says it's wrong for society to expect landowners like him to bear the financial burden of providing habitat for the eagles.

NORRIS: If the county wants to preserve all this land, then they need to buy it. And if they're not willing to buy it, then they ought let you do what you want to do with your land.

SHOGREN: Conservationists say there is not enough money to buy all the land that eagles use. But they say unless society finds a way to make it worthwhile for landowners like Terrell Bowers to preserve the bird's most important habitat, the eagle's dramatic recovery will be fleeting.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

SIEGEL: You can track eagle-nesting patterns around the Chesapeake Bay and hear the previous report in this series at npr.org.

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