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Elves Believe the Fix Is In--Are They Wrong?

Environment: The frail reed of the law can hardly stop the rape of the San Diego back country by commercial developers.

May 04, 2000|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications

What drives members of groups like Earth Liberation Front (ELF) to court lifetime prison sentences by incinerating a ski complex in Vail or Boise Cascade offices in Oregon? It's simple. The "Elves" and many young people who sympathize with them have come to the conclusion that when nature rapers scorn laws on the books and government sides with the nature rapers, then desperate times demand desperate measures.

The Clinton years have seen a terrible hollowing out of the Endangered Species Act (that Vail development invaded protected lynx habitat) and one destructive, so-called "win-win" compromise--sell-out--after another brokered by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. There are thousands of examples. Here's just one.

Head south from Los Angeles, turn east after Oceanside and head for Ramona or Julian. You'll discover that at the heart of San Diego County are mountains forming a blue wall between the coast and the deep desert. Rising to these peaks and buffering them from the cities are the magnificent rolling grasslands and oak-covered foothills of what San Diegans call the back country, its pastures carrying not only cattle but also live oak, golden eagles and profuse other bird life. The country looks dry but is an important watershed, supplying the coastal cities with as much as 15% of their water.

The real estate market in California is now so feverish that the big ranches--rezoned out of agricultural designation and onto the open market--are ripe targets for development. Given the power of the developers, this transition should have been easy, were it not for the efforts of a small group of environmentalists.

Over the past 10 years, Save Our Forest and Ranchlands has been waging a stubborn campaign against the suburbanization of the back country. We're not talking ELF firebrands here. We're talking the League of Women Voters, the astronomers of Mt. Palomar, BayKeeper and assorted herpetologists and botanists. Save Our Forests put together a coalition of environmental and community groups and sued the county for failing to protect the back country. In 1996, Superior Court Judge Judith D. McConnell found San Diego County in violation of several state laws and its own environmental standards and gave tiny Save Our Forest authority over hundreds of thousands of back country acres.

Finally, earlier this year, the county came up with a plan. It proposed to break up the big rangelands into 10-acre parcels, demurely described as small farms. This pleasing vision of mom 'n' pop truck farms raising mangoes, orchids and macadamia nuts collides with the reality that this part of San Diego County has no ground water suitable for such specialty farming and little other infrastructure.

The real future under the county plan would be luxury ranchettes linked by new freeways and serviced by off-ramp commerce. In other words, exactly the sort of unsmart growth that everyone from Vice President Al Gore down to the San Diego Assn. of Governments has been complaining about. (San Diego has the highest rate of habitat loss and more endangered plants and animal species than any county in the U.S.)

Not to be defeated, Save Our Forests and their allies brought the new plan to the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency. On March 31, Nancy Woo, the agency's regional chief, sent a letter to the county supervisors and to Mayor Susan Golding, advising them that the plan threatened the quality and quantity of the region's water and would gravely impact air, endangered wildlife and open space.

Woo's letter threw the county officials into desperation. It looked as though the scheming of years had gone for naught. Then, just before the crucial April 5 meeting, Woo rushed another letter to the San Diego officials. She said she had misinterpreted the plan and that her first letter should be disregarded.

In fact, Woo had not misinterpreted any significant part of the plan. But in her second letter she did not advise the board to withhold approval pending further study. The supervisors were off the hook and, on April 5, passed the amendment that could mean that San Diego's back country will disappear into condoland interspersed with Indian casinos.

The game is not quite over yet. Because the county is still under court supervision, the plan can't go ahead until McConnell signs off on it.

So here we have an environmental disaster in the making, one that is an obvious test case for any supposed commitment by government to bar insane squandering of natural resources. We have county government acting as the creature of the big developers. We have a weak regulatory agency with the nature rapers held in check only by the frail reed of the law of the land and a crusading group like Save Our Forests.

This is but one episode in a dire national story. I don't want to be construed as offering endorsement or encouragement, but it's not entirely surprising that elves figure the fix is in, will always be in and reckon that if the lawmakers are lawless, they might as well take the same path.

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