A federal court's decision to remove the California gnatcatcher from the endangered species list once again puts Southern California's fragile coastal sage habitat at risk. Developers are poised to unleash herds of bulldozers, the Feds to step in with tougher regulation. Already, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is appealing the ruling.
Hold on a minute. . . .
Southern California, reeling from natural disasters and record unemployment, can ill afford an eco-civil war that could make the Pacific Northwest's fight over the spotted owl look like a schoolyard skirmish.
There's a better way, now in the hatching stage in San Diego County. There, the Multiple-Habitat, Multiple-Species Conservation Program has joined landowners, environmentalists, builders and government agencies in an effort to protect rare species and jobs.
San Diego has the painful distinction of being home to 130 species, ranging from the celebrated California least tern to the modest thorn mint, that are candidates for the endangered list. That's more imperiled breeds than any other region in the lower 48 states. Meanwhile, development is stymied by recession, and the county's bruised economy has lost 60,000 jobs. Within this disaster zone, enemies have found common ground in the struggle for survival.
Initiated by the 1991 California Natural Community Conservation Planning Act, San Diego's three-year, $3-million program has identified 93 threatened species holding on for survival in 565,917 acres of land patchworked across 12 jurisdictions. Its ambitious goal is to preserve tens of thousands of those acres and dozens of resident species. By defining permanent areas of protection and clear areas for development, it also seeks to restore and protect the economic vitality of the region, and to bring back thousands of jobs.
This is an evolutionary step forward from the single-species preservation efforts--and court battles. Success here could be a model for the whole country.
The program's interlocking principles are simple: You can't protect a single species in isolation; you also have to protect the web of animal and plant life in which it lives. You can't save a natural habitat that crosses jurisdictional boundaries without bringing all government agencies--city, county, regional--to the bargaining table. And to accomplish all this, you have to persuade avowed enemies that their survival depends on one another.
A working group of about 30 landowners, environmentalists, bureaucrats and politicians began meeting three years ago. That was before the gnatcatcher--a small bird with a call like a mewing kitten--was even on the endangered species list. The plan they came up with is unique: Set aside contiguous swaths of habitat in which many species will be protected, instead of trying to save every creature everywhere.
This trade-off poses risks and sacrifices on all sides: Environmentalists must give up the romance of waging a guerrilla war, species by species, habitat by habitat, until developers are pushed into the sea. Developers must give up half of their land--35,000 acres of prime real estate valued at $700 million. State and federal agencies must be willing to turn over thousands of acres of parkland. Finally, local elected officials must find the courage to ask taxpayers for millions of dollars to acquire private lands for preservation.
The scope of the proposal is immense. Between 85,000 and 167,000 acres of terrain would become a connected system of habitat preserves, from the Pacific to the edge of the Laguna Mountains.
With so much at stake, it's no surprise that the process often bogged down. But it was revived every time.
When the gnatcatcher was abruptly "delisted" on May 2, partisans on all sides held their breath wondering whether the fragile ecosystem of compromise could survive.
So far, the consensus is holding together.
"Here's a sterling opportunity to show good faith," says developer Jim Whalen of the Alliance for Habitat Conservation, a group of builders who collectively own 70,000 acres. In a letter to Babbitt, the alliance pleaded for restraint in defending the gnatcatcher, so that the multispecies conservation program can be completed.
Environmentalists welcome the opportunity to move from planning to implementation. "This is a watershed moment," says Michael Beck, San Diego director of the Endangered Habitats League.
The multispecies, multihabitat approach is a practical, feasible alternative to waging case-by-case battles in court during which vulnerable creatures and jobs are lost.
If developers, environmentalists and public agencies can build a habitat for compromise, there may still be a home for endangered species in Southern California.