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UC to Preserve Merced Lands

Ecology: University promises to set aside 22,000 acres for wildlife during construction of its proposed campus.

January 10, 2002|REBECCA TROUNSON | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Seeking to assuage environmental concerns, the University of California has promised to preserve at least 22,000 acres of sensitive wetlands during construction of its proposed campus near Merced.

The university's pledge, contained in a final environmental impact report to be voted on next week by UC regents, would more than triple the amount of fragile vernal pool habitat to be set aside and shielded from destruction.

The pools are shallow bodies of water that are home to the endangered fairy shrimp.

The UC regents also will consider construction plans for the Merced campus, the university's 10th, at their Los Angeles meeting next week.

If approved, construction would begin in May.

But the project remains controversial.

"I just don't think they've addressed the direct, indirect or cumulative impacts of this project," said Carol Witham, a biologist who heads VernalPools.org, a Davis-based environmental group that opposes the current plans.

"And much of what they're proposing won't work."

The new report calls for the university to preserve 10 acres of vernal pool habitat for every acre destroyed by construction, up from the 3-1 ratio proposed in a draft report issued in August.

The university also says it will erect fences and create security patrols around especially vulnerable pools.

"We're well on the way to preserving a significant portion of the vernal pool habitat in eastern Merced County," said UC Merced spokesman James Grant. "It's a major difference."

The changes follow an October hearing at which many agencies and individuals criticized plans for development of the 2,000-acre campus northeast of Merced.

Earlier last year, the university sought to quell the criticism by shifting the site of the campus and a planned adjacent community two miles south of the original proposal, away from the heart of the fairy shrimp's habitat.

Still, critics remain dissatisfied.

Witham said she considers the plan to have campus security guard the fairy shrimp's delicate habitat inappropriate and invasive.

"It's a ridiculous mitigation strategy," Witham said.

"Anything that requires that much human intervention is just not going to work forever."

Instead, she said, despite the advanced state of the plans, university officials should still consider moving the campus farther south and away from the sensitive area.

Lydia Miller, a Merced-based activist who heads a local wildlife protection group, also said the report did not answer her concerns about the project's effects on raptors and migratory songbirds.

Miller said the university has moved too fast, even making plans for the May 3 groundbreaking before the federal permitting process is complete.

"Nobody is opposing the UC, but we're all opposed to the way the process has been handled," Miller said.

Regent Sue Johnson echoed some of those concerns.

Johnson, who heads the Board of Regents, said she worried that the accelerated planning aimed at allowing the campus to open as scheduled in 2004 could lead to lawsuits.

"My thought is when you're planning anything this important, you ought to spend as much time as you need to do the best job," Johnson said.

Johnson also said she continues to believe that the campus, the first to be launched by the University of California in 37 years, should have been placed closer to an urban center, perhaps in Fresno, and not in an undeveloped, environmentally sensitive area.

But she said she expects her fellow regents to approve the report in the meeting, which will be held Jan. 16 and 17 at Covel Commons on the UCLA campus.

The environmental impact report will be available online at www.ucmercedplanning.net within a few days.

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