In geologic terms, California has developed into one of the world's great agricultural and economic powers in the virtual blink of an eye. But in that geologic second, basically since gold was found in 1848, look what has happened to California from the naturalist's viewpoint: The state has lost an estimated 89% of its riparian woodlands, 80% of the coastal wetlands, 94% of its interior woodlands and 99% of its valley grasslands.
In all, nearly 30 million acres--half the area of Great Britain--have been converted from natural habitat into something else, largely urban development and cropland. In the process, an alarming number of California's animal, bird and plant species have become extinct or threatened, according to a new report by the California Nature Conservancy entitled "Sliding Toward Extinction." More than 200 species of animals and 600 of plants face such a threat and, of those, only about a third are eligible for protection under the federal endangered species program, the environmental organization reported.
More than 30 native California animals already have become extinct or no longer naturally exist in the state, said the report, compiled during a six-month-long study undertaken at the request of the state Senate Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee.
If existing trends continue, a third of California's mammals, one-fourth of the birds, a third of the reptiles and amphibians and 40% of the freshwater fish will be imperiled, the report said.
State and federal laws protecting endangered species are most effective where public land is involved. Although California is ahead of most states in environmental protection, some existing laws and programs are not fully implemented because of lack of funds. The conservancy offered a list of 14 suggestions leading to a more aggressive program of species protection.
One of the more interesting, and comprehensive, proposals was for protection of natural communities such as marshes, river banks and bottomland, sand dunes, estuaries and woodlands. Where private property is involved, the conservancy proposed tax benefits or other incentives to landowners for providing habitat protection. An alternative already in use to a limited extent is the outright purchase of habitat where the landowner is willing to sell.
William Grenfell, chief of the non-game heritage program for the state Fish and Game Department, commented, "The most cost-effective way to save species is to save their habitat before they become endangered." This is, in effect, preaching what the California Nature Conservancy already practices. Over the years, the conservancy, through the volunteer work and donations of 62,000 members, has financed protection for more than 170,000 acres of biologically important habitat in the state.
Battles over endangered species often become trivialized by being viewed in isolation, such as the fight between the snail darter and Tellico Dam. The Nature Conservancy has done the state a service by demonstrating the importance of varieties of species and their importance within a more general environment. Unless California does more to recognize the value of conserving its natural diversity, the state will continue to grow poorer as it becomes richer.