Sprawl or Species?—Land&People

Stand on the edge of Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve on the northern fringe of San Diego, and you get a sense of the landscape of the past. Rolling green hills, carpeted with grass and knee-high islands of sage and laurel sumac, spill down a broad valley to a narrow creek lined with sycamores and willows. The air is tangy with mint and sage. The morning sun bathes the hillsides in a golden light that calls to mind fairy tales or Greek myths. The setting is sensual, spacious, and quiet, recalling the gentle grandeur that once defined southern California.

It's the kind of scene San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob has in mind when she extols the county's virtues. "We have beaches," she boasts. "We have the mountains. We have the desert. We have it all."

But just at your back is the San Diego of the present: huge earthmovers have filled many of its swales and valleys, scraping at its grasses and patches of scrub. Left behind is a moonscape of oatmeal-colored dirt, soon to become miles and miles of single-family homes, with irrigated lawns and exotic trees and hedges for privacy.

It is a scene repeated over much of 4,200-square-mile San Diego County. There is still a rich array of landscapes: subtropical beaches, coastal salt marshes, willow-lined canyons, rare vernal pools, hills covered with olive-green sage scrub and darker tangles of chaparral, parklike oak woodlands, cool conifer forests, and, beyond the mountains, the creosote and cactus of the desert. But San Diego is the nation's eighth-largest city in population, and a string of towns and cities to the north and east are quickly knitting into a dense blanket of urban sprawl.

Vanishing rapidly are the landscapes that once defined the character of the place. Ninety-eight percent of the vernal pools, 95 percent of the perennial grasslands, 90 percent of freshwater marshes, and 90 percent of the maritime succulent scrub are already gone. Most of the coastal sage scrub, coastal mixed chaparral, and southern maritime chaparral are already under pavement, housing tracts, and industrial parks. Freeways snarl with commuter traffic at rush hours.

The future portends more sprawl. County population was 2.5 million in 1990 and is expected to grow to 3.8 million by 2015, attracted by a diversified economy that includes military bases, tourism, and a growing array of electronics and biotechnology companies. Local communities want to provide housing for this future population, and the preferred style is suburban, with large lots and two-car garages. All over the western side of the county, billboards announce new subdivisions. The development leapfrogs out into the hills and valleys, devouring the landscape that once framed San Diego's character. Studies by the San Diego Association of Governments show that under existing general and community plans, all the lands currently designated for residential development will be built over by 2005. Meanwhile, only 16 percent of the lands envisioned by those plans as parks and open space has actually been dedicated.

Can imperiled species turn the tide?

"Preserving our most valuable habitat and recreation lands is fundamental to maintaining the quality of life in San Diego County," says Supervisor Dianne Jacob. "We have to be aggressive in acquiring open space."

San Diego County's varied landscape boasts unusually high numbers of plant and animal species. As you go from the coast to the mountains, you encounter a patchwork of habitats in which many endemic species have evolved, including Otay mesa mint, the Riverside fairy shrimp, the Quino checkerspot butterfly, and the San Diego horned lizard. Already, development has left San Diego County with more imperiled species than any comparable land area in the United States. More than 200 plant and animal species are threatened, endangered, rare, sensitive, or candidates for special protection. Perhaps twice that many could be added to the total if development goes on unabated.

Ten years ago, the upward momentum of development collided noisily with the downward spiral of nature over the fate of a small bird. The blue-gray California gnatcatcher nests especially in coastal sage scrub, a drab green assembly of drought-resistant sages, brittlebush, monkeyflowers, and buckwheats found only in five southern California counties. Sage scrub is treeless and small-scaled–not the kind of landscape Americans pose heroes against or write anthems about. Developers bulldoze into it without compunction. By 1990, less than 10 percent of this habitat remained, along with only about 2,500 pairs of gnatcatchers. Petitions were filed under both California and federal endangered species laws to protect the gnatcatcher, and in 1993 the federal government declared the bird a threatened species.

Developers feared that listing the gnatcatcher would bring expensive new regulatory hurdles and huge uncertainties about where they could build. And given San Diego's rich biodiversity, they worried what other species would impose yet more limits on development. Environmentalists saw listing the gnatcatcher as a duty but doubted the government's resolve to uphold the Endangered Species Act, seriously weakened by years of concerted attacks in the name of property rights. Over the previous 20 years, more listed species had declined than recovered, and new species were continually being proposed for listing.

Wildlife agencies, environmentalists, local governments, and developers agreed that a different approach was needed. Together they proposed that habitat assessment be done in advance of development. Rather than making decisions to preserve or develop on a case-by-case basis, the goal would be to set aside a system of large, connecting reserves to protect a whole suite of species, including the gnatcatcher. Remaining lands might be left for development and assurances given to developers that, once approved, their projects would not need to be reconfigured if additional species were later declared endangered.

Michael Beck, San Diego director for the Endangered Habitats League, saw the gnatcatcher as "a very important umbrella species"; its protection could save habitats that might protect dozens of other species. But he also saw that the Endangered Species Act worked only on a project-by-project basis; it did not engender a regional biological perspective or increase environmentalists' ability to influence land use decisions. "There had to be a better way to work." Beck thought the new approach worth trying.

A new kind of planning process

With the gnatcatcher declared threatened, the federal Endangered Species Act became the engine driving the new planning process. The act permits habitat conservation plans, by which local agencies and developers may alter the habitat of a listed species in return for efforts to ensure the survival of that species elsewhere. San Diego and neighboring counties were urged to join in a large and complicated habitat conservation plan for the gnatcatcher and other species. Reluctant jurisdictions were drawn into the process by the threat that failure to participate could subject them to long, costly, project-by-project endangered species reviews by wildlife agencies. At least three large regional planning efforts are now under way in San Diego County, and the county and each city are preparing subarea plans that must specify ways they will try to meet the preservation goals of the regional plans.

The regional plan nearest completion is the Multiple Species Conservation Plan (MSCP) for southern San Diego County. It was decided there to plan for 85 species–including both endangered species and umbrella species such as deer and mountain lion–protection of which offered reasonable assurance of survival for the widest range of plants and animals. The MSCP proposes to protect 171,000 acres in preserves. About half that total is already publicly owned.

The federal Department of the Interior and California's Resources Agency have both staked the future of endangered species protection on the habitat conservation planning effort. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt declared habitat planning the kind of process that "must be done across the country if we are to avoid the environmental and economic train wrecks we've seen in the last decade." With San Diego widely seen as a make-or-break test of the new approach, the federal government has put considerable resources into the MSCP. The heart of its commitment is a new 44,000-acre San Diego National Wildlife Refuge and Congress has appropriated more than $14 million to acquire lands there. The state of California, strongly committed to the success of this showcase effort, has spent more than $15 million acquiring lands for ecological reserves in the MSCP area.

But declaring a refuge and making it a reality are two different things. Proctor Valley, between San Miguel Mountain and the Jamul Mountains, lies along the western edge of the intended refuge and boasts one of the remaining large, healthy stands of coastal sage scrub. This broad, westward-sloping valley, traversed by a dirt road, offers sweeping views and pristine quiet. Black-shouldered kites hover over a ridgetop, and sparrow hawks perch on poles: there is abundant life in the somber green sage. While developments, including a 23,000-acre subdivision, gnaw at the lower end, the heart of the valley is still far from pavement and sewer and utility lines.

However, several large developments are seeking county permits to leap from the drawing boards to the scrub-covered hillsides. Though the targeted acres lie within the boundaries of the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge, the Fish and Wildlife Service–pledged to acquire land only at fair market value and from willing sellers–may be powerless to stop them.

TPL bridges the gap

Because developers work faster than government funding processes, there is an urgent need for organizations like the Trust for Public Land. TPL has inaugurated a San Diego County program to help the new plans succeed.

In the past year, TPL purchased and conveyed to the Fish and Wildlife Service Las Monta?as, 954 acres along a west-running ridge of chaparral and sage scrub that connects two otherwise separate realms of the refuge. The land offers sweeping views of the mountains to the east, the bays to the west, downtown San Diego and the harbor, and miles of ridge and mesa closer by. Permits had been issued to build a golf resort and conference center. When the developer ran into problems and decided to sell, no government agency was in a position to move fast enough to keep the property from being bought by yet another developer at a fire-sale price. Says TPL Project Manager Debra Geiler, "It was the linchpin of the refuge. If this property was not purchased, it would have split the refuge in two," blocking animal migrations and isolating gene pools.

In January 1999, TPL also acquired the 4,750-acre Rancho Jamul, a wide-open landscape of scrub, chaparral, grassland, oak woodland, and riparian habitat that is home to California gnatcatchers, least Bell's vireos, orange-throated whiptails, and San Diego horned lizards. Most of the ranch has been conveyed to the California Department of Fish and Game and the federal Bureau of Land Management, which will manage it as an ecological reserve within the boundaries of the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge.

Cities must contribute to the preserve system as well, and TPL is working with several to achieve their goals. In the northern part of the county, the city of Escondido, attempting to finance a new sewer treatment facility in the 1980s, sold future hookup rights, promising the investors a 10 percent return on their money each year until they actually exercised their connection options. The city found itself forced to pay out vast sums in dividends and worried that extending roads, police, and school services to the proposed developments would entail even larger public costs. Within its jurisdiction, Daley Ranch–3,050 acres encompassing chaparral- and scrub-covered hillsides, broad meadows, and lush oak woodlands–was slated for a 1,700-home subdivision that would have stretched city services thin. TPL purchased Daley Ranch and its sewer hookup rights and sold them back to the city. The ranch is now a city park actively used by hikers, bikers, and equestrians.

Perhaps the most important aspect of TPL's participation is that its land transactions have given momentum to the preserve effort. Says TPL Field Representative Paige Rausser, "Protecting such large landscapes as Daley Ranch, Rancho Jamul, and Las Monta?as lends hope for the future of wildlife in San Diego County and to the ultimate success of habitat conservation planning."

Our Best hope for San Diego's Natural Heritage?

Much needs to be done before anyone can declare this effort a success. The MSCP calls for the county and cities to pay half the estimated $335 to $411 million costs of land acquisition and maintenance. Under consideration are increasing sales taxes and forming local open space or habitat conservation districts that fund themselves through bond sales and property-tax assessments. So far, though San Diego city and county have provided funds from their annual budgets, none of the local jurisdictions have come up with a mechanism to provide funding for the long term. Competing interests such as schools, libraries, roads, airport expansion, and new professional sports stadiums are also asking for big public financing measures. It remains to be seen whether local voters will accept the challenge and approve new funding for the sake of conservation.

As the preserves are established, they may create their own constituencies, says Dianne Jacob. "When I go out into the community where these preserves have been created, there's overwhelming support. People understand that it's increasing their property values and improving the quality of life for themselves and their children."

Ron Rempel, deputy director for California's Habitat Conservation Division and the state's point man for the San Diego effort, believes that support for local financing will develop. He points out that the MSCP has been endorsed by the chamber of commerce, the building association, the San Diego Taxpayers Association, and the California Native Plant Society. "They've all been lobbying to get further funding both at the state and local level."

But the environmental community is still much divided over this effort. The Environmental Law Foundation has filed suit in the name of 14 environmental groups seeking stronger standards in the MSCP. Others question whether, as the plan is further shaped by political forces, scientific input and review will keep it biologically sound. Says Paul Blackburn of the San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club, "I think everybody would like to give it a try. At the same time, I think there's a lot of skepticism because these things are unproven." In the end, many feel, like Michael Beck, that habitat conservation planning is the best chance left to save San Diego's natural heritage. Says Beck, "I am persuaded that this is a new approach to conservation and is a step toward a future where we are effectively protecting all our biological resources."


Land & People, Spring, 1999


Peter Steinhart writes about natural history and environmental affairs. He is the author of Two Eagles/Dos Aguilas and The Company of Wolves.