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nicholasn | Jun 07, 2010 01:00 AM

Not every school has endangered species in attendance. But when you’re the size of Stanford University, you’ve got more than a few enrolled. The university owns over 8,000 continuous acres in two counties, and several cities, much of which is undeveloped oak-studded savanna or forest. Five narrow creeks flow through to the San Francisco Bay, and they harbor endangered steelhead, which swim up to spawn. Other species of concern "on-campus" include the western pond turtle, the California tiger salamander, the red-legged frog, and the San Francisco garter snake. 

Now, for the first time, the ever-expanding university has released a near-final draft of a Habitat Conservation Plan for its entire holdings. Basically, an HCP is a way for landowners to cooperate with the government to protect endangered species. Section 10 of the Endangered Species Act “provides for the issuance to non-federal entities of a permit authorizing the incidental take of listed wildlife species” —  in other words, the unavoidable destruction of individual animals or their habitat. But to obtain such a permit, an HCP outlining mitigation measures is required. If Stanford's plan is approved, the university will conserve and enhance large swaths of critical habitat, but be allowed to build on approximately 180 acres of it (though the school will have to go through local permitting still — no easy task).

Originally a stock farm (thus its moniker, “the farm”), Stanford’s sprawling, park-like, and increasingly commercial-park-like landscape is the school's largest asset. It was pure, capitalist genius on the part of former California Gov. Leland Stanford to specify in the university’s charter that its land — now at the heart of Silicon Valley — couldn't be sold. There's beyond-ample room to grow,  and leasing to technological and financial giants generates revenue. But as the HCP acknowledges, the land’s also biologically invaluable. The fenced-off Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve testifies to that especially; it's nurtured important ecological research like the checkerspot butterfly studies of Paul Ehrlich (of Population Bomb fame), which showed some species can only survive at the regional level, as a metapopulation — a collection of smaller, fragile populations that act as sources for each other. Ironically, the Bay checkerspot is now endangered (and in cow pastures, as HCN reports); alas, Ehrlich's Jasper Ridge populations are gone.

Stanford's HCP is an effort to stave off similar local extinctions. It takes a long-term, comprehensive view of the university's undeveloped tracts and endangered denizens, and then lays out conservation and mitigation actions that could begin this year, rather than as each new building crops up. The school plans to protect the 13 miles of creeks that wind through its land, maintaining a healthy buffer. Additionally, Stanford has enumerated specific aid for each species, such as removing junk in creeks for steelhead. Or in the case of the tiger salamander, constructing new breeding ponds and permanent conservation easements in the adjacent foothills, known as “the Dish,” to which the slow yet sure-footed creatures travel from their on-campus birthplace, the man-made Lake Lagunita. They’ll also maintain amphibian tunnels under the busy road that divides the lake from the foothills. Neat!

But at the same time, the HCP signals at least a toe of those foothills will be developed. It paves the way, in part, for 180 acres of open space to be “taken” over the next 50 years. In the way of corporations, Stanford is reserving the right to build on lands once home to salamanders. That’s to be expected, but if it happens, well, it'll be a shame, because Stanford’s open space toward the Santa Cruz Mountains is important to many species — and to the locals, whom, at heart, I still count myself among. Those buff fields are remnants of “the farm” of old.

The university would do well to infill, in the way of the most progressive cities; the many acres of (probably biologically barren) eucalyptus forest used mainly for overflow event parking come first to mind. If it means saving a few salamanders and satellite acres, here and there, I’m all for more many-storied garages near the quad — and/or fewer Cardinal football games.

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