Biologist Dennis Murphy, president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University, is a science advisor for several Habitat Conservation Plans in Southern California. The plans were designed to protect the California gnatcatcher and other species while allowing development in the last remnants of the coastal scrub ecosystem.
Dennis Murphy: "The
goal of the Endangered Species Act is unrealizable. Recovering
species that only need public lands may be possible, but on private
lands only heroic efforts will be able to sustain species that will
inevitably decline. That's a reality.
Conservation Plans are a result of the fundamental clash between
the Endangered Species Act and the Fifth Amendment, which
guarantees property owners compensation if the government takes
their property. The plans have helped us avoid this ultimate
showdown in court. We already know how (justices) Scalia, Rehnquist
and Thomas would vote if the right case came before the Supreme
"The big problem with HCPs is not lack of
science but lack of time. Private landowners come in to do an HCP
when they are ready to develop. They're not willing to wait seven
years for us to do studies.
"The answer of
science in Southern California is not to allow any more building
and to knock down half of what is there and restore the landscape.
That's not going to happen. If the California gnatcatcher needs 19
out of every 20 acres - sorry, bird, you ain't going to get
"There are some rules that can be used to
resolve scientific uncertainty. If the plan is pro-species by a
ratio of two or three acres saved for every one developed, then
it's probably OK. If the ratio is more like one acre lost for every
acre saved, then the species might have a tough go of it. If we
apply basic concepts of conservation biology - adequately sized
reserves that are connected to each other - 90 percent of the
uncertainty is dealt with.
"But active management
is a requisite now. We've probably crossed the line where the
gnatcatcher can take care of itself.
problem with HCPs is that Babbitt has muzzleloaded so many of them
in the pipeline that staff with less and less qualifications are
making the deals. That's troubling.
Southeast, with the red-cockaded woodpecker, some of the HCPs seem
bogus. In the Northwest, in northern spotted owl country, they
appear to be better than the status quo, but are they good enough
for us to lock them in for 100 years? I'd get a lot of negative
response to that.
"Since I began working on the
Southern California plans I have become a target of
environmentalists. I have begun to understand how my developer
friends feel. Of course, there are some asshole developers out
there. But the developers who have lasted understand the game. They
understand that if they have 800 acres, they'll only be able to
build on 200. They expect "extractions." These guys boast of how
many regulatory hurdles they have jumped to get their projects
"I want the enviros to tell me what
science they would use to resolve acre-by-acre decisions with a
reasonable budget and time frame."