Assemblyman Larry Stirling and leaders of a San Diego Assn. of Governments task force on the endangered least Bell's vireo unveiled a plan on Wednesday that they hope will protect the bird's habitat while clearing the way for public works projects that have been threatened by environmental regulations.
Stirling (R-La Mesa), who authored the bill funding the creation of the Comprehensive Species Management Plan, said the plan will seek to coordinate efforts by cities and counties to preserve the bird's habitats.
A small, gray migratory songbird that nests along streams and rivers, the least Bell's vireo once numbered in the thousands throughout California and southern Oregon. But over the past few decades, the bird's population and habitat have decreased precipitously, prompting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in May to include the vireo on its list of endangered species.
A survey of the bird's population compiled by Sandag and released earlier this month indicated only 304 breeding pairs of vireos in the state, with 272 of those in San Diego County, primarily along streams in rural areas. Stirling said the uncoordinated efforts of states and counties to limit the encroachment of development into vireo habitats have done nothing to protect the bird.
"The old approach was strictly piecemeal," Stirling said at a news conference Wednesday morning at Padre Dam in San Diego, one of the vireo habitats. "Each project anticipated its impact and did or did not take whatever mitigation measures they thought were necessary. The condor's the worst example of responding too late and too little and, gosh, we've almost lost it, and it's all due to the piecemeal process."
The plan will cover vireo habitats ranging from Dulzura Creek in southeast San Diego County north to the Santa Ynez River in Santa Barbara County. Additionally, specific habitat conservation plans will be developed for each of the 16 protected areas.
The various plans will identify vireo habitats and establish guidelines for mitigation measures that would be required for developments in those areas, Sandag planner Rick Alexander said. The measures would include land swaps with developers and modifications of public works projects to avoid encroachment on the vireo's ecosystem.
Stirling first proposed the comprehensive plan last year. At the time, he offered it as an alternative to federal designation of the vireo as an endangered species, because of the impact such designation would have on projects planned for areas considered to be "critical habitat."
The first step of the plan was the appointment in January of a Sandag task force headed by Escondido Mayor Ernie Cowan to study the environmental hazards facing the vireo and consider methods by which the songbird could co-habitate with such projects as the extension of California 52, the Oceanside bypass on California 76, and new bridges on California 94 and Interstate 15.
Cowan said the mitigation measures will help ensure that public works and private development will not be delayed for violating state and federal environmental standards.
"There has been some criticism that this will hold up projects," Cowan said. "This will allow projects to proceed."
Over the next two years, the task force will try to incorporate recommendations of environmental consultants into agreements between various agencies. The final step of the Comprehensive Species Management Plan, scheduled to be completed in 1988, will be to implement the plan and enforce its provisions.
Alexander said the last would be the hardest part.
"Cities and counties don't want to be stuck with the long-term implementation of this plan," Alexander said. "And the Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't have the money to do it."
Alexander said the implementation of the plan may be overseen by a group including representatives of various city and county governments, or by a state or federal agency working under contract.
"There are a lot of options, but you do need an independent third party to make sure these agreements are being honored," Alexander said.
Stirling said: "It's not assured that this will work. It requires the cooperation of the federal and state government and all the local property owners and all the local governments."
Should property owners or developers prove reluctant to comply with the plan, Stirling said, they will be faced with the "hammer" of the California Environmental Quality Act and the vireo's status as an endangered species, which makes it a federal crime to injure the animal's habitat.
Although the morass of habitat plans, mitigation measures and inter-agency bureaucracy may be unwieldy, Stirling contends the comprehensive plan is the most simple and effective method of protecting the vireo.
"In the absence of this, there would be hundreds and hundreds of EIRs, and hundreds and hundreds of recovery plans," Stirling said.
The initial cost of the plan is $300,000, with half provided by a state appropriation and the rest provided by the cities of San Diego, Santee and Oceanside, Orange and San Diego counties, the San Diego County Water Authority, the Orange County Water District and the Home Capital Corp. Alexander said he could not estimate the eventual cost of the plan, which will affect development in the area for most of the next century.
Paul Kroemer, an ecologist with Regional Environmental Consultants, a San Diego firm Sandag is retaining for its vireo preservation efforts, admits the scrawny, unspectacular bird may not have the popular appeal of other endangered species, but stresses it is important nonetheless.
"It certainly isn't as charismatic as the condor or some of the mammals that are endangered," Kroemer said. "The most important consideration is that the least Bell's vireo is only one of a suite of species that depend on this riparian environment."