San Diego’s Habitat Triage
To save room for a raft of imperiled species, one city is making sacrifices to the gods of sprawl. Not everyone thinks it’s going to be a happy ending
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA — For the first 32 years that Anne Harvey lived at the base of Carmel Mountain, a sandy, unpaved road passed by her home. She used to roam the chaparral-covered foothills and climb to a rocky knoll at the top. A philosophy major at the University of California, San Diego, who later became a landscape architect, she slowly grew attached to her rugged backyard mountain, and to the rare plants and animals that lived there — the black-tailed jackrabbit, the white-flowering Del Mar manzanita and the San Diego fairy shrimp in the seasonal pools.
Today, red and gray tile roofs scale the local hillsides. Arroyo Sorrento Road in front of Harvey’s house was paved two years ago. The hilltop knoll still towers above the valley, but there’s no way to reach it without walking through other people’s backyards.
Across the street from Harvey’s house, bulldozers are tearing up the earth to create Torrey View Estates, eight new one-acre lots selling for $600,000 apiece. Down the street sit 89 tile-roofed homes in another subdivision, Torrey Woods. Immediately to Harvey’s west, six more homes in the Torrey Collection are in the framing stages, starting at $1.4 million each.
But Harvey’s 46-year-old stucco and wood frame house hasn’t changed; its 1.5-acre lot is still packed with rubber, honeysuckle, jade, Mexican fan palm and Japanese loquat trees. It’s a nostalgic slice of Southern California, one that lingers on today mostly in detective novels and movies.
Even now, when Harvey walks out onto the road before daybreak on a foggy morning, she can’t tell at first that things have changed. Then the sun comes out, and a chaotic world is revealed. While more than 150 acres of open space have been saved on the mountain, that land exists in the midst of 440 new homes.
"You laugh at the absurdities and take heart at what you’ve won," says Harvey, "and you wake up and fret some days and think that everything was lost."
The victories and defeats on Carmel Mountain are part of the uneasy compromise that six years ago produced the country’s first major regional habitat conservation plan, which sought to save imperiled species while at the same time allowing San Diego to keep growing. For five years, the federal government negotiated this plan with developers, environmentalists, and public officials, from then-Gov. Pete Wilson down to local city councils.
The Multiple Species Conservation Program was designed to protect 85 imperiled plant and animal species by saving 172,000 of the 315,000 finest remaining acres of San Diego County’s chaparral, coastal sage scrub and other disappearing wildlife habitats.
The idea seemed profoundly simple. Scientists would figure out which land was the most important habitat and decide how much of it needed protection to guarantee species’ survival. In return, the government would allow the development of less important land. The endless conflicts over development and preservation, not just in San Diego but across the West, would be replaced by a new era of political and scientific certainty.
Some environmental groups, such as the Center for Biological Diversity and the California Native Plant Society, warned that the plan was too vague and weak. But their criticism was largely drowned out by the support of government and business leaders and moderate environmentalists. Above all, at a time when the Endangered Species Act was under blistering attack from Republicans in Congress, the Clinton administration hailed the program as a sign that wildlife protection and economic development were in fact compatible.
When the city of San Diego signed off on the Multiple Species Conservation Program in May 1997, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt praised it as a national model for balancing growth and preservation. The New York Times declared that "a virtual Noah’s Ark of endangered plant and animal life will now have a fighting chance to survive the relentless development that has disfigured so much of Southern California." Today, more than 400 multiple-species programs and other kinds of habitat conservation plans are on the books nationally.
The San Diego plan’s backers say there is plenty to celebrate. Both the city of San Diego and San Diego County have acquired more land for the habitat preserve than they had expected to at this point. Supporters say the preserve makes ecological sense: Rather than saving isolated patches of open space, San Diego is trying to create a system of preserves that links mountains, desert and coastal scrubland, and saves ecosystems as well as species.
"It’s the only way we’re going to address the loss of biodiversity. Nobody has offered an alternative to demonstrate a better way," says Michael Beck, San Diego director of the Endangered Habitats League, the Southern California environmental group that pushed hardest for the plan.
But, as the housing developments go in, it remains far from clear that all 85 of the species the plan was designed to protect will survive.
Environmentalists, two former Fish and Wildlife Service officials and a state-financed report have raised concerns that the program was pieced together with inadequate science, and without clear standards to back up its decisions. The area’s local governments have failed to carry out a promise to set up an assured source of money to buy land and run the preserves. Many scientists and officials connected with the plan say that management and monitoring efforts are inadequate.
So after more than a decade of planning, debate, litigation and land-buying, is the Multiple Species Conservation Program tough enough to carry out its goals?
Conservation under the gun
A quick drive up San Diego’s freeways makes it easy to understand why this city became the testing ground for a nationwide experiment in habitat conservation planning. Everywhere, homes priced well into the millions are perched on hilltops, ridgetops and mesas, while bulldozers rapidly carve new lots out of the vanishing coastal scrub vegetation. The county’s population has more than doubled in 30 years to nearly 3 million people.
> All this is happening in a wildly varied landscape that includes mountains climbing to well over 6,000 feet, deserts dotted with prickly pear, agave and cholla cacti, and a series of coastal mesas covered with rare plant communities, such as coastal sage scrub, southern maritime chaparral and maritime succulent scrub.
This combination of ecological variety and a human population explosion means that San Diego County has more imperiled species than any other county in the continental United States. Roughly 200 plant and animal species here are already protected by state or federal law, are candidates for protection, or are considered rare or sensitive.
Development has eliminated 70 percent of the county’s coastal sage scrub, 95 percent of its native grasslands and more than 90 percent of other coastal vegetation communities. Close to 97 percent of the county’s vernal pools — the seasonal pools filled by rain that support endangered fairy shrimp — are gone.
Ironically, it was a sewer plant, not an endangered species, that first aroused the combined apparatus of federal, state and local agencies. In 1991, the City of San Diego and the federal Environmental Protection Agency signed a consent decree ending years of dispute over city plans to build a $44 million wastewater reclamation plant along the city’s northern edge. As part of the deal, the city agreed to create a plan to ensure that the new plant would not enable so much growth and development that it would wipe out the region’s biological resources.
The sewer plant was never fully built, but this original agreement spawned the working group of 29 public officials, community leaders, environmental activists, developers and homebuilders, who spent the next seven years fashioning the Multiple Species Conservation Program. According to most members of the group, the process proved arduous, draining and difficult. The political atmosphere at the time assured that it would be nothing less.
California state officials had recently launched a conservation program that sought to improve protection for endangered species in growing areas, while still allowing growth to occur. But the new state Natural Community Conservation Planning Act made some environmentalists uneasy, in part because one of its chief backers was the Orange County developer, the Irvine Corp., and in part because they didn’t trust California Gov. Pete Wilson, R, who had been San Diego’s mayor during most of the 1970s.
San Diego, like the rest of the country, was also starting to climb out of a prolonged recession. The troubled economy caused major convulsions in the city’s planning structure, and environmentalists were already unhappy about what looked like a future of unfettered sprawl.
Environmentalists got some support from newly elected President Bill Clinton and his Interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt. In 1994, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added the California gnatcatcher to the list of threatened species. Dozens of projects in coastal sage scrub had to be delayed while biologists studied their impacts on the tiny, black-capped bird.
But the gnatcatcher listing only served to increase pressure in Congress to repeal or rewrite the Endangered Species Act, as developers and business representatives around the country warned that the law could prove an economic nightmare if fully enforced.
"All of these issues were starting to conspire to create a very difficult and highly charged environment," recalls Marc Ebbin, then a special assistant to Babbitt who had come to San Diego in 1993 to see if he could arrange a marriage between the new state law and the federal Endangered Species Act — a marriage that ultimately led to the Multiple Species Conservation Program.
Babbitt believed that the conflict between economic development and endangered species protection was unnecessary, Ebbin recalls. "We always took the position that that is a false choice," he says. "Under the ESA, there was room for the accommodation of economic activities without having it be at the expense of biodiversity, and endangered species in particular."
Even though there was a lot of skepticism, both locally and nationally, about Babbitt’s "win-win" philosophy, all sides of the development disputes were growing weary of the endless court fights over individual projects affecting individual species. Many were starting to wonder if it would be better to manage entire ecological systems.
Babbitt dove into the San Diego dispute. "Nobody had tried to do anything like this before," Ebbin says. "If (the new form of planning) was ever going to work out, this was a good place to try it."
A balancing act
The 29-member working group that produced the Multiple Species Conservation Program was chaired by Karen Scarborough, a top aide to San Diego Mayor Susan Golding, who became one of the plan’s leading supporters. Vice chair was Jim Whalen, a prominent development consultant and biologist who represented a group of developers that called itself the Alliance for Habitat Conservation. There were 14 government officials, eight business leaders and seven environmentalists on the committee.
The program gave developers a few breaks from the start. The Fish and Wildlife Service approved a waiver under the Endangered Species Act, allowing the grading and blading of 5 percent of each community’s total coastal sage scrub, to avoid a shutdown of development during the planning process.
Then, Jerre Stallcup and her fellow staffers at Ogden Environmental and Energy Services Inc., a biological consulting firm in San Diego, spent two years carving 315,000 acres of high-quality habitat out of a 582,000-acre swath of southern San Diego County. The biologists came up with several designs for a preserve to protect the 85 key species, which included the gnatcatcher along with 20 other threatened or endangered animals and plants, and eight others that were proposed for listing.
Eventually, the committee recommended its own design, which scaled back the preserve to about 172,000 acres. Although the final plan had sliced away about 46 percent of the biologists’ original habitat design, government scientists working on the program contended it would still conserve enough land to protect the 85 key species. In unprotected areas, wildlife habitat was open for development, and all 85 species were permitted to suffer "incidental take," including harassment, harm or killing.
About 81,750 acres of the preserve were already in the hands of government agencies; 90,000 acres of private land were to be added. About a third of the private land would be bought by city, county, state and federal agencies.
Developers would have to give up the rest as part of their agreements with local governments. In the portion of the preserve inside the city of San Diego, for instance, developers would be required to conserve 75 percent of their land. But they could build on 25 percent, so the city could avoid charges of "taking" private property without compensation.
"The mayor wanted to say that this is a very scientifically based conservation program. Instead of a piece here and a piece there ... you get the best," says Scarborough, now an assistant to a California state representative. "It was rearranging puzzle pieces so you had connected the open space system, and it was good for bunnies."
Supporters of the conservation plan saw it as a carefully crafted product of compromise, one that pulled off the heretofore unimaginable task of bringing together a huge collection of deeply suspicious, disparate interest groups. The program became a national model, not so much for the preserve design, but for the collaborative process that created it, says Nancy Gilbert, who worked closely on the plan from the Fish and Wildlife Service’s San Diego area regional office.
"We all have different interests, but we can get there with this common goal of preserving natural resources, allowing development and continued quality of life," says Gilbert, who is now a field supervisor at the service’s Bend, Ore., office. "That’s what makes it pretty amazing, frankly, on that level, that scale: Everybody worked together."
Locally, creation of the program represented a different way of thinking, "an epiphany," says Sherry Barrett, who shepherded the plan as the Fish and Wildlife Service’s assistant supervisor in Carlsbad. "They were trying to find a way that didn’t result in the Los Angelization of San Diego County, to have species in the midst of development."
But the final plan was not pure science. Reaching agreement was a matter of creating a political package that satisfied as many key stakeholders as possible, according to biologist and developer Whalen. "It is not a biological exercise. Biology is the scorecard, an indicator of how the process works," he says. "This is a political solution. The place for ideology is in a bar."
"A triage plan"
The Multiple Species Conservation Program split the city’s environmentalists, pitting moderate groups against more militant ones, sometimes dividing the chapters of a single group. The local Audubon Society, for instance, has been a critic of the plan; the statewide chapter supported it.
The program’s biggest flaw, according to many critics, is that it is too vague. Some of the strongest criticism was aimed at a provision protecting vernal pools and wetlands "to the maximum extent practicable" (see story at right). Critics say it gives local governments far too much latitude in deciding which pools should be saved and which can be destroyed. Although the program says that 88 percent of all vernal pools will be protected, it never specifies which pools it means, or provides a baseline figure. How many pools are we talking about, critics wondered — 88 percent of what?
Vernal pools look drab in dry seasons, but they glisten in the springtime after winter rains leave them full of water. These ephemeral wetlands, once common throughout California, have been nearly wiped out across the state. The pools are home to two fairy shrimp species and at least six plant species that are either protected or proposed for state or federal endangered species protection.
For environmentalists such as Allison Rolfe, the program’s fuzzy approach to protecting vernal pools symbolized its fundamental flaw: Planners had focused on "landscape-level" conservation of big parcels at the expense of rare species. Rolfe, now 31, wrote her master’s thesis on the program for San Diego State University. As an activist first with the Center for Biodiversity and later with the San Diego Audubon Society, she spent seven years on the program, first trying to shape it, and then fighting it in court.
Rolfe contends that the preserve boundaries do not clearly spell out which parcels will and will not be saved, but rather are "placeholding" lines, used by local governments and developers to negotiate, parcel by parcel. "The lines don’t mean what people think they do," she says.
In the portion of the preserve within the San Diego city limits, for instance, a dozen developments won approval without having to save 75 percent of their land, even as the conservation program was being approved, because they were already in the pipeline. The landowners either had previous rezonings giving them the right to develop, or they had already asked for such approval at the time the plan was started.
David Hogan of the Center for Biological Diversity notes that many of the 85 key species, particularly rare plants such as the Del Mar manzanita, the San Diego goldenstar and the San Miguel savory, were not given as much protection under the plan as the Fish and Wildlife Service recommended. Twelve other plant varieties, called "narrow endemics" because they typically occur only in very specific areas, got the same kind of protection as vernal pools: They are to be "avoided to the maximum extent practicable."
Hogan points out another weakness in the inch-thick document: It calls on authorities to protect the imperiled species from the "edge effects" of nearby development and agriculture — things like trash dumping, recreation and predation from domestic cats and dogs. But there are no guarantees that the edge effects will be dealt with.
In contrast, Hogan says, developers get clear assurances. During the program’s 50-year lifetime, for example, the service can only ask for additional land conservation, or impose new wildlife-protecting regulations, in "extraordinary circumstances." The Endangered Species Act calls this the "No Surprises" rule. In practical terms, that means federal and state agencies, not developers, must pick up the tab for most new conservation efforts.
The program also yanks the power of most wildlife agencies to review or approve specific projects, except for wetlands covered under the Clean Water Act.
Hogan and Rolfe blame these problems partly on the consensus process that made the conservation program possible in the first place.
"The only way an agreement can be reached ... is if the language is so vague that it can be interpreted the way each side wants to interpret it," Hogan says. "Discretionary, vague language will always be interpreted by decision makers depending on where their money comes from. In San Diego, it is the building industry."
But Michael Beck of the Endangered Habitats League defends the process of compromise that produced the program. About the working group, Beck says, "It had developers, agencies, jurisdictions, water districts. That collection of people was simply not going to choose 100 percent conservation. It was not in the cards. It never is."
He says the No Surprises rule was essential to get get the developers to the bargaining table: "Unless you have a mechanism to give assurances to landowners, you will not have a plan. There is no incentive to them otherwise."
Working group member Craig Adams agrees with Beck. "There is little question that the plan is a triage plan," says Adams, now the executive director of the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy. "The ultimate test was, was it going to provide a significant net improvement over what would otherwise happen?"
How do you spell success?
Six years into the Multiple Species Conservation Program, there is little doubt that, by Craig Adams’ standard, the plan has been a success.
By the end of 2002, the city had acquired more than 10,000 acres, on top of 22,000 acres already in public hands. County, state and federal officials had bought 21,000 acres in unincorporated San Diego County. City and county agencies are at least halfway toward their respective goals of owning 52,000 and 101,000 acres by 2047, when the federal permit authorizing the program runs out. The majority of that land, however, was publicly owned before the plan’s approval.
Perhaps the program’s greatest success story is Mount San Miguel. More than a decade ago, a developer won county approval to build 27,000 homes on this mountain at the edge of suburbia, far southeast of downtown. Environmentalists coaxed the federal government into buying some of it, and the development was scaled back. The area is now the hub of the new San Diego National Wildlife Refuge, slated to grow from 8,000 to 50,000 acres in five years.
To the west, you can see planned communities spreading toward the blinking lights of Tijuana and the lighthouse at Point Loma. But to the east, chaparral-covered hills and desert grassland dominate the landscape. "Most of what you’ll see here that isn’t developed is refuge," says Val Urban, the refuge manager. "What’s so unusual about working here is that the refuge is folks’ backyard."
To the north of Mount San Miguel, in rolling hills just off Interstate 8 heading east to Yuma, an environmental group persuaded the California Department of Fish and Game to buy 2,300 acres of rolling hills and rock outcroppings called Crestridge that had been targeted for homes and a golf course. South of Mount San Miguel near the Mexican border, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has bought 3,900 acres of Otay Mountain, home to the largest stand of Tecate cypress trees on earth. The agency hopes to acquire another 8,000 acres.
All these land-saving projects got started after — and, their backers say, because of — San Diego’s efforts to create the conservation program. But if the measure of the program’s success is the survival of the 85 key species it set out to protect, the jury is still out.
In 2001, the concerns of critics were in part borne out by a report from the California state government’s research bureau. The author, Daniel Pollak, a public policy analyst for the bureau, interviewed dozens of biologists, developers, environmentalists and government officials.
Pollak praised the conservation program for encouraging long-term planning, and for creating large, interconnected habitat reserves across a terribly fragmented landscape. But his criticism ran deep.
There was little concrete information about how local governments would finance land purchases, scientific research, monitoring and habitat management. There were holes in its science behind the plan, Pollak wrote, with little explanation of how the needs of imperiled species were analyzed.
"Is enough habitat being protected in the right places to conserve the species and ecosystems?" he asked. "There is no definitive answer to this question, especially since the reserves were designed in the face of significant gaps in our scientific knowledge about these species and ecosystems."
Pollak’s report led to changes in the state Natural Communities Conservation Planning Act; it now requires specific standards to determine whether species are adequately protected, and assurances that money will be available for monitoring species’ health. But Pollak isn’t sure if those changes will ensure that the habitat plan works properly.
"There’s only so far you can go. Changes in language don’t necessarily translate to changes in actual practice," he says.
No place are the limits of the conservation program more evident than on Carmel Mountain, above Anne Harvey’s house.
Nearly a decade ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified Carmel Mountain and the surrounding Del Mar Mesa as one of the few intact tracts of coastal land in the county still linked to larger open spaces inland. The land played host to the coastal cactus wren, a state species of special concern, the federally endangered arroyo southwestern toad, and five other protected plant and animal species. It contained the region’s largest stand of southern maritime chaparral, one of the San Diego region’s rarest plant communities.
The conservation program’s final maps, however, left Carmel Mountain blank. Nobody could agree on what to do with it. For half a decade, it had been a constant source of conflict. Developer Pardee Homes, a subsidiary of timber giant Weyerhaeuser Corp., had been trying since the early 1990s to build hundreds of homes on the mountain. All together, 2,000 homes were planned. But environmentalists and nearby residents objected, stalling the projects.
"With this being the last place like it along the coast, we decided that ‘Whatever it takes, we’re going to fight,’ " says Anne Harvey. But the deadlock kept the area out of the habitat preserve boundaries.
With land on Carmel Mountain selling for nearly $1 million an acre in the late 1990s, city officials decided they couldn’t afford to save all of it.
Despite the conservation program’s requirement that developers save 75 percent of the land within the habitat preserve, the city decided not to try to force the politically powerful developers to do so. About a year after the plan was approved, Pardee Homes, the city and environmentalists cut a deal: 135 acres on Carmel would be saved, and, in return, Pardee could develop other land at a faster pace.
Other developments came onto the horizon, however, developments with names like Torrey Surf, Torrey Pines Estates, Loma Sorrento and Westbrook. The city negotiated with developers over open space, and bought some land outright, but couldn’t protect the whole mountain.
"The idea of making it all preserve was dreamland," recalls Karen Scarborough, who later bought a home in the Torrey Surf project. "You went out here, you thought, God, I wish I could do it, but it was coastal, prime access, it never could have happened."
Today, there are over 100 acres of protected chamise and Del Mar manzanita on Carmel, but about a quarter of the mountain is hidden under 440 tile roofs. "Carmel Mountain was a very unique site," says Isabelle Kay, director of University of California at San Diego’s natural reserve system. It held petrified trees in old sand dunes, she says. "Nobody surveyed the trees. They were bulldozed.
"We didn’t just wipe out biology. We wiped out cultural history, hydrology, sites occupied by native people and surveyed by archaeologists. It was a bunch of inept people, making decisions on the fly about the future of an area they were trying to protect."
Only time will tell
Today, San Diego’s development issues remain steeped in conflict, despite the Multiple Species Conservation Program. Seven lawsuits have been filed against the program or its implementation, and one recently succeeded: In late September, a U.S. District Court judge in Washington, D.C., granted the Spirit of the Sage Council, a Southern California-based environmental group, summary judgment in a lawsuit it had filed against the "No Surprises" rule. The details of the judge’s ruling aren’t out yet, but in the meantime, the service has stopped issuing new "take" permits for habitat conservation plans.
Some say they had expected that litigation and polarization would continue: "You still have projects that are proceeding, but they have to proceed consistent with the plan," says the wildlife service’s Nancy Gilbert. "It doesn’t mean that everybody is satisfied with the plan, or that everyone is satisfied with projects occurring in their backyard."
But critics say the continued struggle over day-to-day projects shows the plan’s false promises of long-term stability and harmony.
Cindy Burrascano, an activist for the California Native Plant Society, says that, for her, little has changed since the approval of the conservation program. She opposed the plan back in the late 1990s, but still held out hope it could offer some change.
Now, as she stops at a steep-sloped development site in Mira Mesa, a community in northern San Diego, she pulls out a thick environmental impact report for a toll road being built through the preserve in Chula Vista, just south of San Diego. She drives through and around steep hills and valleys at the border, showing the route of a proposed Border Patrol fence and road project that would be 150 feet wide, running through much of the preserve just north of the Mexican border.
She has maps for a proposed water pipeline and an expanded parkway through the preserve. The society is pressing its third lawsuit, trying to stop a developer from putting an industrial park in a canyon inside San Diego, home to an endangered plant that was first inside, and then outside of the habitat preserve.
"I spend most of my time today chasing individual projects, which is what I did before. I have as many projects to fight today as ever, but less tools to fight them with," says Burruscano. "I thought the (conservation program) would solve some of these things. But now, I think we would have had just as good a protection without a plan." A continued flow of new developments is not the only big issue facing the conservation program. In February 2002, a nonprofit organization, the Conservation Biology Institute — where biologist Jerre Stallcup now works — helped produce an inch-thick report detailing potential problems in managing preserves. Among them are weeds, off-road vehicles, and homeowners and businesses that have encroached onto city lands, or cleared or modified native habitat on private property.
But Stallcup is one of the few players in this debate who sees both sides. Before the program, land management and acquisition were done ad hoc, as money was available, she says. Now, there are regional priorities for which individual areas of the county are worth saving. Since the plan was approved, the state has had $100 million available to buy land for conservation, and developers now must buy land to compensate for destroying "all natural habitats," rather than only those occupied by protected species.
Little or no biological monitoring was required of projects before the plan, says Stallcup. Now, such monitoring is required "in perpetuity." The plan has also added three areas to the national wildlife refuge system.
Stallcup says she was personally depressed by the development of so much of Carmel Mountain. But in the end, she thinks the county’s wildlife is probably much better off with the plan than it would be without it. "That’s the only way I feel good about it," she says.
Tony Davis covers growth and development issues at the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson. Contact him at email@example.com.
The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:
Center for Biological Diversity David Hogan, San Diego office, 619-574-6800
City of San Diego MSCP 619-236-6479, www.sannet.gov/mscp
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Carlsbad office, 760-431-9440
Endangered Habitats League 213-804-2750
Bureau of Land Management Palm Springs office, 760-251-4840
San Diego National Wildlife Refuge 619-669-7295