SAN DIEGO — Ninety-five percent of the remaining sage scrub in Southern California must be off limits to development for at least several years to guarantee the survival of the California gnatcatcher and an array of other imperiled creatures, according to guidelines issued Wednesday by a state panel of scientists.
The stringent new guidelines set the framework for a novel state experiment in creating wildlife preserves for the gnatcatcher--a tiny songbird that the Interior Department declared a threatened species last week--and about 75 other birds, lizards, mammals and plants that share its habitat.
Local governments and developers are supposed to use the scientists' advice to launch the long, difficult process of planning permanent preserves for the rare wildlife. The idea of the program, created by Gov. Pete Wilson's Resources Agency, is to reach voluntary agreements to protect large mosaics of natural lands, focusing on the sage scrub homes of the gnatcatcher.
Dennis Murphy, a Stanford University wildlife biologist who chairs the state's five-member scientific panel, said members concluded that the condition of Southern California's natural lands "is as bad as it looks."
"It is very clear that coastal sage scrub is in trouble and needs protection," he said. "If we're only going to lose 5% more, I'd be one happy conservation biologist. But in fact I believe there will be pressures above and beyond that 5%."
The advice of the scientists--revealed at a meeting in the La Mesa suburb of San Diego that drew about 100 people--is not mandatory.
But city and county officials will face pressure to follow it, since state and federal wildlife agencies have veto power. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has warned that the federal government will exert control over Southern California's development under the Endangered Species Act if the state program fails to protect the gnatcatcher.
Murphy said that ideally, not even one more acre of the habitat should be bulldozed, since it is already so depleted that species like the gnatcatcher are edging toward extinction. But realistically, he said, because development pressures are so intense in Southern California, a 5% loss is tolerable.
The clash over the shrubby habitat is intense because it grows in the same low-lying hills and mesas in five counties, some with commanding ocean or canyon views, that are coveted for building large housing subdivisions and other projects.
Developers and environmentalists, who have been anxiously awaiting the scientists' guidelines, were guarded Wednesday in their reaction.
Several developers said they weren't alarmed at the prospect of a temporary ban on virtually all of the remaining habitat. The biggest reason is the dismal economy--building has been scaled back almost to a halt in Southern California.
"Nobody screamed mortal pain--not the developers, not the environmentalists. They screamed pain, but not mortal pain," Murphy said. "The fact that they're not screaming upfront means that I think we have a percentage everyone can live with."
The scientists called their plan conservative--erring in the favor of wildlife.
They recommend that the 95% restriction remain in place until more data is collected and preserves are created--which they said could take three to six years. The idea, Murphy said, is to limit the damage until more research determines which lands are critical to preserve permanently.
Environmentalists generally were pleased by the scientists' rules. Dan Silver of the Endangered Habitats League, a coalition of about 50 California environmental groups, called them "very strict and conservative."
They worried, though, that the scientists' advice might not be enforced by city and county officials who have the most immediate power to approve development.
"Who's going to say no to the big developers like the Irvine Co.?" said Ann Notthoff of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "There's great flexibility in these guidelines. Is there enough teeth in them to mean there really won't be development on the highest value lands (for wildlife)?"
State officials who are running the program acknowledged that politics will mingle with science to eventually determine how much and which land is saved.
"Biologists say 'save it all and fix the rest.' But we're making trade-offs," said Tom Reid, a consultant to the California Department of Fish and Game, which is overseeing the state conservation program. "I'm not saying it's all politically negotiable. What I'm saying is we have now developed scientific tools for making these political decisions that provide guidance to local governments."
The scientists recommended that the 5% loss be restricted to areas of low value to wildlife--small fragments, roughly less than a mile or two in diameter, or those that contain just a few pairs of the rare birds. Developers would also be asked to compensate for the loss by improving or creating wildlife habitat nearby.