'The real problem is lack of time'

  • Dennis Murphy

    Courtesy Center for Conservation Biology

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories.

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.

"Habitat 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 Court.

"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 it.

"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.

"The main 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.

"In the 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 through.

"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."

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