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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Even defenders of the Endangered Species Act say it kicks in too late in the process of extinction because eco-systems along with individual species need to be protected to avert the loss of biological diversity. San Diego recently approved a land use system based on the conservation of habitat in which nearly two thousand acres of San Diego County have been designated as eco-sensitive areas off limits to development. In an exchange, developers can move forward with projects outside the reserves without worrying that some time in the future they will be blocked by an endangered species claim. Erik Anderson of member station KPBS in San Diego has our report.


CURWOOD: Even the most ardent defenders of the Endangered Species Act say it kicks in too late in the process of extinction. Ecosystems as well as individual species, they say, need to be protected to avert the loss of biological diversity. That's why the eyes of the nation are on San Diego. The city recently approved a land use system based on the conservation of critical habitat. Nearly 2,000 of San Diego County's 640,000 acres have been designated as eco-sensitive areas that are off-limits to development. In exchange, developers can move forward with projects outside the reserves without worrying that somewhere along the line they might be blocked by an endangered species claim. So far, the plan is drawing mixed reviews. Erik Anderson of member station KPBS in San Diego has our report.

GOLDING: Mr. McCarty, as you know, I share many of your concerns, which is why I fought from the beginning to make this a different way to do things...

ANDERSON: San Diego mayor Susan Golding is facing a difficult political balancing act. She's leading the charge for an ambitious plan to protect threatened species and guide development in this rapidly urbanizing area, without alienating the moderate and conservative voters who've elected her twice, and who she hopes will help send her to the US Senate.

GOLDING: Call the roll. The vote is unanimous, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. (Applause)

ANDERSON: After 5 years of discussion and debate, the San Diego City Council approved the proposal known as the Multiple Species Conservation Program, or MSCP. Developed by US Government biologists with input from environmentalists, developers, local and state politicians, and residents, it would set aside a fifth of San Diego County's land as crucial habitat for 85 threatened plant and animal species. In exchange for this protection, the program allows development to continue elsewhere, even on land where one of the species may live. It is a major change from the old way of doing business under the Endangered Species Act, which puts no restrictions on private land until a species reaches a crisis point. Once that happens, though, lawmakers suddenly can't do anything that would compromise its habitat. Mayor Golding says that has hurt developers and landowners without really helping threatened animals and plants.

(People milling around)

GOLDING: All the old way has done is stopped development on pieces on property. It has not created habitat. So you create kind of a piecemeal or postage stamp kind of preservation. And the truth is that most plants and animals don't flourish in that kind of environment.

ANDERSON: Mayor Golding says by designating protected wildlife habitats and corridors ahead of time, San Diego's wildlife will be assured sufficient territory on which to thrive, and landowners will have a more predictable environment in which to build.

GOLDING: It is a new way to resolve the conflict between development and the environment, and we believe and mostly the environmental community believes that it is a better way to do it.

ANDERSON: The San Diego plan is the most far-reaching yet of a new type of tool favored by the Clinton Administration. Special agreements in which local and state officials promise they'll manage development before an endangered species crisis hits. And Washington agrees to ease up on some stringent wildlife protections. Many environmental groups have given the conservation plan at least qualified support. Even San Diego County's Building Trades Association, representing 1,000 contractors, has jumped on board, enticed by the promise of a simplified development process. But the local leaders who pushed the plan still have a big sales job ahead of them. San Diego County's 17 other communities have yet to sign on, and there's plenty of vocal opposition to the plan.

(Birds chirping)

ANDERSON: When 56-year-old Janice Zamudio left the farms of Wisconsin 22 years ago and moved to southern California, she brought with her the dream of owning a small farm. Four years after relocating, she found what she was looking for.

ZAMUDIO: It's very quiet. If you stop and listen, sometimes the only thing you can hear is the wind blow, or the birds sing. It is very pretty.

ANDERSON: Ms. Zamudio bought a mostly flat parcel of land on top of a coastal mesa, which at the time was pretty much free of zoning restrictions.

ZAMUDIO: The only thing you had to worry about in the way of development was floodplain and hillside review. So we ended up getting 32 acres that was mostly mesa top, and I thought I certainly would be able to use most of this land for a small farm or a horse ranch or a chicken ranch or whatever I wanted to use it for.

ANDERSON: But Ms. Zamudio's land has been designated a wildlife corridor. She can't build on three quarters of it, and although the city has promised to pay her for what she can't develop, she says that could take 20 years. It could cost 300 million to one and a half billion dollars to buy all the newly designated habitat from private land owners. But only a small fraction of that has been set aside. There's talk of a bond issue to raise the cash, but that may not happen for a few years. And there's no alternative in place if voters reject it. The lack of a compensation plan has also given some developers reservations about the conservation plan. Party Construction stands to lose a thousand acres, meaning they could have millions of dollars tied up for years. Party's Mike Madigan says that's old time thuggery.

MADIGAN: Al Capone and his friends used to go around to businesses in Chicago and say things like, "We could make it extremely difficult for you to stay in business. But for the payment of a modest fee, say, a third of your income, we will make sure that you're able to stay in business."

ANDERSON: The plan has also gained the ire of many scientists.

(Shuffling noises)

ANDERSON: In a crowded greenhouse complex, San Diego State University biologist Ellen Bauder is studying a Federally-protected plan which is struggling to survive in San Diego's increasingly urban environment.

BAUDER: And this is an experiment here that I have been doing for a year. This is on a rare plant called San Diego thorn mint. You can see...

ANDERSON: Dr. Bauder has studied the area's rare plants for more than 15 years. She says many species are uncommon to begin with, because of the region's semi-arid climate. The thorn mint, for instance, requires a soil mixture and environmental conditions that are relatively scarce here. Dr. Bauder says that in dry environments like San Diego's, watersheds are a crucial part of any management plan. But the Multiple Species Conservation Program ignores them. She also faults the plan for keying development decisions only to the habitat needs of certain plants and animals.

BAUDER: If this were really a conservation plan, people would be looking at deer and coyotes and skunks and things like that just as much as they are looking at the incredibly rare things, because they're all linked together. But none of that has been looked at because that will not stop a building permit. It's the rare plants and animals that will stop a building permit.

ANDERSON: Essentially, Dr. Bauder says the plan gives land owners a license to develop most of the county, diminishing the habitat for a broad range of creatures.

BAUDER: The few scientists who said they think it's good, it's basically because they feel some of the alternatives would be worse.

ANDERSON: The alternative that scares so many people is unplanned urban sprawl. Four hundred thousand more people are expected in the county by the year 2015. That's why San Diego's Sierra Club supports the habitat blueprint. Spokesperson Craig Adams says protracted and costly legal battles over endangered species listings aren't helping plants and animals already teetering on the verge of extinction.

ADAMS: We're almost in a triage setting. And what that means is that we have islands of habitat. And what science shows is that islands essentially are where species go to go extinct.

ANDERSON: The conservation plan doesn't take every plant and animal into account, but it does go far beyond the standard species by species approach, so common under the Endangered Species Act. Mr. Adams concedes there are no guarantees but says the plan does bring some reasonable basis for hope. It's that hope which motivates San Diego mayor Susan Golding. She says the Multiple Species Conservation Plan is an opportunity to preserve an important part of her community.

GOLDING: Of all the things that we've been involved in, this is the one that will be lasting. This is the one that will be there forever. And we can all, at some point in time, walk through, see a habitat preserve. And we can know that it would not be there if it weren't for us. And I can't think of a better legacy to leave.

ANDERSON: With the city, state, and Federal government on board, there is a lot of momentum behind the conservation plan. But San Diego is only the first of 17 municipalities to okay what's intended to be a county-wide habitat plan. And it'll be less effective if even one town fails to sign on. There's also a question whether it will stand up to expected legal challenges. That means the Clinton Administration could face, in San Diego, exactly what it was hoping to avoid: the costly legal battles that have become the bane of the Endangered Species Act. For Living on Earth, I'm Erik Anderson in San Diego.



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