Even as biologists and builders were preparing for a long-awaited showdown today that could decide the fate of the California gnatcatcher, a tiny songbird that threatens to block highway and housing projects, hundreds of acres of its habitat were being plowed under, research has shown.
Since state and federal officials announced in late 1990 that they would begin considering the gnatcatcher as a candidate for the endangered species list, 650 acres of the coastal sage scrub that harbors the bird has been uprooted in Orange County alone, according to a UC Irvine biologist who has researched the matter using county planning records.
And in some cases, parcels were cleared of gnatcatcher habitat just days before today's pivotal meeting of the state Fish and Game Commission to determine if the 4-inch, blue-gray songbird should be considered for endangered species status. The commission meets in Newport Beach.
Environmentalists fear that developers throughout Southern California are rushing to clear their land of gnatcatcher habitat before the commission makes a decision. But Hugh Hewitt, an attorney who represents the Building Industry Assn., says that is nonsense.
"There is no rapid escalation of coastal sage scrub destruction," Hewitt said. "What you see is business as usual. . . . It's impossible to cobble together some kind of an indictment of landowners and builders for the wholesale destruction of coastal sage scrub when only 650 acres" has been cleared this year.
An estimated 3,500 acres that builders plan to develop in Orange and San Diego counties over the next 18 months could be affected by the commission's ruling.
The bird can survive only in coastal sage scrub, a rare and fast-diminishing mixture of short, softwood shrubs and grasses that grow only in California and small sections of Oregon and Baja California.
In a report to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which will make the ultimate decision on listing the bird, UC Irvine biologist Fred M. Roberts Jr. estimated that more than 3,000 acres of coastal sage scrub has been cleared since 1988--and nearly a quarter of that has been done since the beginning of this year, when debate over the gnatcatcher intensified.
In the last few months, there have been several notable incidents in which coastal sage scrub has been bulldozed:
* Brighton Homes, which cleared 270 acres in January on a Yorba Linda parcel containing coastal sage scrub. An environmental study of the property in 1987 indicated that there were no gnatcatchers on the property.
* Santa Margarita Co., which bulldozed 380 acres last week--more than half of it containing coastal sage scrub--to make way for the Las Flores planned community. The work was being completed even as a Superior Court judge overturned approval of the project and ordered additional studies on its environmental effects.
* In the San Diego County community of Poway, a golf course developer in February and March mowed down prime coastal sage scrub on his 708-acre parcel, which is home to a dozen nesting pairs of gnatcatchers.