Amid smoke and sprawl, some success

  • Flames of the Otay-Mine Fire creep through the San Diego Refuge

    PHOTO COURTESY SAN DIEGO NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "San Diego’s Habitat Triage."

It has taken six years for public officials in and around San Diego to acquire 30,000 acres of private land for a regional endangered species preserve.

It took one week for almost 80 percent of that preserve to go up in flames. In late October, as this issue went to press, wildfires destroyed more than 2,800 homes, killed 20 people and scorched more than 750,000 acres of brush, desert and forests, including sizable chunks of the wildlife preserve created under the 1997 Multiple Species Conservation Program.

Thomas Oberbauer, with the San Diego County Department of Planning and Land Use, predicts that virtually everything that burned will come back quickly, with the exception of old trees, such as the 500-year-old sugar pines living 45 miles east of the city.

“You can have populations blink out here or there,” says Oberbauer, “but generally, they come back that much better” after a fire.

Michael Beck, San Diego director of the Endangered Habitats League, is more guarded. “Fire in and of itself is not a bad thing in a fire-dependent vegetation community,” he says. “Having said that, we have many populations of plants and animals on life support, threatened and endangered. I’m personally worried this is going to be quite a devastating hit.”

One positive side of the fire is that it undoubtedly wiped out a lot of exotic plants, saving local authorities from having to rip them out, says Oberbauer: “You hope more native plants can move in and take over those areas.”

The fire struck after six years of conservation work, during which city and county governments have acquired 30,000 acres through purchases and donations by developers. Another 60,000 acres of private land are needed for the preserve by 2047. Rolling hills, grasslands, chaparral-covered slopes and some coastal mesa land have so far been obtained.

The plan is well ahead of schedule, but the city’s 2,400 acres and county’s 21,000 acres of land purchases have relied heavily on state and federal money.

Beck acknowledges that local officials are behind the curve in raising money for conservation. He sees hope for more local money next November, however, when voters will decide on a measure to reauthorize and reallocate part of an existing sales tax to pay for buying and operating habitat preserves.

Overall, Beck is pleased with what the plan has accomplished. He lives on the edge of the Crestridge preserve, east of San Diego. It took two and a half years to save Crestridge, which had been planned as a 92-home development. The state paid $3.5 million, and developer Frank Gatlin donated about $6 million worth of land.

“It looked like development was going to destroy the intensity of this area, so we started working with county agencies and state wildlife agencies to see if they’d include it in the (preserve),” says Beck. “The landowner actually believed in what we were trying to accomplish. He was sensitive to the (conservation) program. He stuck with this deal.”

The fire certainly shows one value of the preserve, he says. Almost all of Crestridge has gone up in flames; “If we hadn’t bought it, 92 houses in the middle of the area would have burned.”

Perhaps the plan’s greatest success is the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge, about a half-hour drive southeast of downtown San Diego. It was supposed to be part of a massive subdivision, one that local officials had approved — over the objections of environmentalists — before the conservation program was created. But, with money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund and other programs, the federal government has bought 8,000 acres and hopes to purchase thousands more in coming years.

Early monitoring efforts at the refuge have found as many as 20 endangered southwestern willow flycatchers, 20 threatened California gnatcatchers and 52 territorial males of the least Bell’s vireo, all covered by the Multiple Species Conservation Program. With development burgeoning on the refuge’s north and west sides, refuge manager Val Urban said that “edge effects” from sprawl are the refuge’s biggest problem.

Trash dumping and motorcycles tearing through shrubbery and forest are all exaggerated on the refuge because of the nearby human presence, he says: “It’s real easy to dump when you just have to throw it over your back fence.”

The refuge has also struggled with staff shortages; it had only one biologist and a staff technician for monitoring, and both positions are now vacant. As a result, the refuge was forced to scale back monitoring this year, instead of improving it.

Putting the problems in perspective, Urban says he sees the conservation program is better than the alternative: “If we have motorcycles on the refuge that are destroying habitat, that’s a horrible thing. But having cycles destroy habitat is better than having condos.”

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