HUNTINGTON BEACH — Under normal circumstances, simply getting these combatants in the same room--other than a courtroom--could qualify for a Nobel Peace Prize.
But these are not normal times in Southern California. So on one recent morning here they sat side by side, like patients in group therapy: Developers and environmentalists. Biologists and urban planners. Attorneys and government regulators.
Facing an imminent threat that the federal Endangered Species Act will control the future of the region's undeveloped land, these groups are attempting to cooperatively preserve ecosystems for troubled species that live on some of the nation's most valuable real estate.
Their voluntary effort to grapple with one of Southern California's most volatile environmental dilemmas recently attained national prominence when Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt told Congress he intends to use it as a national model for all rare animals and plants.
Babbitt said such attempts to protect endangered species could represent a vital new strategy. Too often, "economic train wrecks" have occurred when federal officials sought to implement the 20-year-old Endangered Species Act, he said.
All this acclaim energizes the diverse members of the state's Natural Communities Conservation Planning program, which was initiated by Gov. Pete Wilson in September, 1991. But it also makes them a bit nervous because they know that their success is far from guaranteed.
In fact, after a slow and rocky start, the program is just about to enter its most crucial and contentious stage.
Next month, a state panel of university scientists will identify and rank the "hot spots"--the undeveloped lands in five counties considered rich areas for coastal sage scrub.
The imperiled landscape of sagebrush and other native shrubs supports about 50 rare animals, including the California gnatcatchers--tiny, gray birds with long, black tails--as well as cactus wrens and several rare lizards. The scrub grows mostly in the hills and canyons of Orange, San Diego and western Riverside counties, but also on the Palos Verdes Peninsula and in San Bernardino County.
By November, city and county governments will use the scientists' guidelines to draw boundaries around areas to create wildlife preserves. Then they will tackle the enormous task of bargaining with landowners and finding the money and other resources to acquire and manage the property.
In all, the land at stake spreads from Palos Verdes Peninsula to San Bernardino to the Mexican border, covering about 400,000 acres, much of it privately owned and some worth hundreds of thousands of dollars an acre.
The hot spots are expected to include many areas of prime real estate, especially in the coastal hills between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, the eastern foothills and canyons of Orange County and huge swaths of land in north coastal and central San Diego County.
Tom Reid, a Palo Alto environmental consultant hired by the state to work on the project, said the idea is to "red-flag the areas that would be a critical loss."
"But it's not an insurance policy," Reid said. "It can't save all of it."
Developers, particularly in Orange and San Diego counties, are anxiously waiting to see what land is "hot" and what is "cold" when it comes to protecting wildlife. They hope that the scientists' guidelines will help determine "how much is enough" when it comes to conservation.
"There are still going to be people who . . . would like to see houses torn up and the habitat replanted," said Richard Broming, a vice president of Santa Margarita Co., which has about 35,000 acres of undeveloped ranchland in southern Orange County, much of it coastal sage scrub. "We won't be able to satisfy those people at all. But now we can deal with it and understand the impacts and how growth and development can fit in."
Environmentalists strongly endorse the concept but they worry that the scientists' rules may be too flexible, and will carry little weight in halting bulldozers.
"My concern is there is going to be a tremendous amount of wiggle room in their recommendations," said Dan Silver of the Endangered Habitats League, a coalition of about 30 environmental groups.
California Resources Agency officials who oversee the program say some intense battles will erupt over the next few months.
When the Wilson Administration and the Irvine Co. brought together these warring tribes 1 1/2 years ago, fear of the Endangered Species Act, the nation's toughest environmental law, was palpable. State and federal officials were trying to decide whether to list the gnatcatcher as endangered.
Some environmentalists dropped out of the negotiations in the early months, saying the Wilson Administration made the program so weak that it was worthless. Many developers, mainly in Riverside County, have refused to participate because they believe that they have nothing to gain.