Santee's Fanita Ranch:
open space or urban sprawl?

A conversation with community member Van Collinsworth

by Carolyn Chase
an Collinsworth and his family enjoy the quality of life that Santee still has to offer. But they realize that would all evaporate if 3,000 homes were to sprawl across their golden hills, into Fanita Ranch and Sycamore Canyon.

Fanita Ranch is located northeast of Mission Trails Park, adjacent to and directly east of NAS Miramar. The northern hills of Santee make up Fanita's southern boundary. Sycamore Canyon Creek and Southern Clark Canyon Creek represent the major drainages. Fanita Ranch's 2,550 acres are predominantly coastal sage scrub, grassland and some riparian woodlands, with chaparral at the northeast higher elevation. It is classified in the Multiple Species Conservation Plan (MSCP) as "very high quality biological core habitat," with major north/south and east/west wildlife corridors.

The biology of Fanita Ranch is rich. It contains a minimum of sixteen sensitive animal species and six sensitive plant species. This includes 38 - 44 California gnatcatchers on approximately 1,070 acres of coastal sage scrub, 3 - 4 pairs of cactus wren, the grasshopper sparrow, vernal pool species, etc.

The geographic location and topography of Fanita Ranch serves as a natural buffer for the heart of central county habitat. Fanita Ranch ties together major open space areas. Mission Trails Park, NAS Miramar, Goodan Ranch/Sycamore Canyon Preserve, San Vicente Cornerstone and Iron Mountain all make up the only significant block of low fragmented habitat in Central San Diego County. These lands (in conjunction with Barona Indian Reservation and remote private lands) form a habitat block connected to the Cleveland National Forest.

Wild Santee

In May 1994, Van Collinsworth and Robin Rierdan co-founded Preserve Wild Santee with the goal of preserving Fanita Ranch as part of the regional preserve. That summer, 15 more Santee citizens helped walk Santee neighborhoods to sign up another 1,000 residents with a similar vision.

I first met Van when we were both attending local meetings about the MSCP. I watched him organize to ensure that Fanita Ranch had a chance to be saved. Fanita Ranch has been on and off the development course for many years. In 1990, 3,500 homes were planned there. Now, as the regional MSCP moves toward its implementation phase, leaving Fanita Ranch intact has become a real possibility.

Van now spends his days trading securities by computer and is a "professional house-husband," caring for his 4 1/2 year old daughter, Whitney, and his 2 1/2 year old son, Aaron. (Both are "Mac-literate" and make trading recommendations.)

We were privileged to have a conversation with Van about his conservation efforts and his connection to this unique part of the county.

ET: What do you think gave you the connection to this place?

Van: I moved to Santee in the mid-1960s. As a child, I played in the San Diego River bed (now Mast Park), hiked the hills around Mission Gorge (now Mission Trails Park) and roamed over Sycamore Canyon's Fanita Ranch. After graduating form Humboldt State University [in redwood country], my first "real" job was with the U.S. Forest Service in Mammoth Lakes. My work in information services and fire suppression fueled my interest in natural land management issues.

Our motivating factor is that we are fighting for our own habitat, as well as endangered wildlife. If people really look ahead to what provides quality-of-life in a community, they will see that open spaces are critical, for the benefit of natural systems and for us.

ET: When did you realize you needed to get involved and organize others to help too?

Van: I was invited to a meeting about the MSCP. Before this I never recognized a viable way to keep the land open... but all of a sudden this [MSCP] plan created a real opportunity.

ET: What was your biggest stumbling block?

Van: Trying to get the City Council on board. It's taken a lot of work to do that. There were certain points that were really gloomy. But we stuck with it. At the beginning, the landowner wanted it developed and the City wanted it developed. The MSCP was peripheral to what was going on. Fortunately, the city and the developer could not agree on content or density. Throughout the MSCP, the developer's proposal was part of the plan. Still, we worked to change that and succeeded with an amendment at our last real chance. The amendment is an alternative for total preservation and was supported by the landowner, American General Land Development Corporation.

Now the Santee City Council has realized that a large development on Fanita Ranch would have significant negative impacts upon our city. The council has reduced zoning density and altered our MSCP subarea plan to include an alternative for total preservation. Preservation will create legal access to the Goodan Ranch Preserve that Santee has already helped to acquire. Hence, acquisition will align both community and biological goals.

ET: Where do we stand now?

Van: We're looking for funding. Despite the continued desire to build 3,000 units, American General is a cooperative and willing seller at this point and we are cautiously optimistic. There has been no formal appraisal yet.

Preserve Wild Santee is dedicated to keeping Santee and our region a quality place to live. Fanita Ranch will be a benefit to the community and region as a recreational open space park.

ET: What are your thoughts on MSCP?

Van: I believe that the MSCP should move forward - but, forward with a goal to maximize conservation. Despite its compromises, the Multiple Species Conservation Program is better than the continuation of project-by-project mitigation, which has not prevented San Diego County from becoming an "endangered species hot spot."

However, I'm concerned that we are not creating a preserve with the conservation value that this program is capable of. I'm concerned that this preserve may not be viable over the longer term for those species it claims to cover.

The design flaws in areas like Fanita Ranch and Carmel Mountain must be corrected. Edge effects from fragmented development projects reduce the biological value of conserved lands and add greatly to its management cost. These flaws can be eliminated by more acquisitions from willing sellers.

To me, Fanita Ranch is a major test case. The way that Fanita Ranch is resolved will indicate whether decision makers desire to create a viable regional preserve with this program - or just the illusion of one which allows development to march on.

There is no question that Fanita Ranch belongs entirely in the preserve. It is biological core habitat within the MHPA [Multiple Habitat Planning Area] preserve boundaries. The proposed bubbles of development would degrade and convert high quality habitat around them into low quality habitat. Yet we have a willing seller, and money if the Congress, the Dept. of Interior and the State are willing to allocate it.

Where's the money?

ET: What is your biggest challenge?

Van: Some government officials would have us believe that "money is short" and we just can't afford to acquire all of the lands that have willing sellers. But that just isn't the case.

A look at only one Federal funding source reveals that isn't true. The Congress and Administration have an annual allocation of $900 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund at their disposal, for the precise purpose for which this program was established. Yet, more than 600 million dollars of that money is misappropriated annually. In fact, Congress has misappropriated $11 billion out of the $19 billion deposited over the life of the fund!

Science magazine published "Geographic Distribution of Endangered Species in the United States" in the January '97 issue. The study, conducted by scientists from Princeton University and the Environmental Defense Fund, state that, "The amount of land that needs to be managed to protect currently endangered and threatened species in the United States is a relatively small proportion of the land mass." The hottest spots identified were in Southern California, Florida and Hawaii. San Diego County stands out with Hawaii! The Scientists conclude that, "If conservation efforts and funds can be expanded in a few key areas, it should be possible to conserve endangered species with great efficiency."

Spending conservation funds for strategic acquisitions in San Diego County is money well spent. It has been "penny wise and pound foolish" of the Congress to misappropriate 11 billion dollars of Land and Water Conservation Funds when the land could have been purchased for less. Unfortunately, the public now has to pay the price for electing shortsighted Representatives after the 1979 peak in appropriations.

In fact, the original Representatives behind passage of the Land and Water Conservation Act stated:

"During the first years of the program, emphasis will necessarily be on planning and land acquisition activities. It is important that acquisition be undertaken before the land becomes unavailable either because of skyrocketing prices, or because it has been preempted for other uses."

The "fathers of the Act" also stated:

"In providing outdoor recreation resources and facilities for the American people, the greatest emphasis should be given to those areas with large concentrations of people."

This description certainly fits San Diego County!

It is my suggestion that developers and Congressmen who are sold on habitat conservation plans act to make funds available for land acquisition. Land targeted for purchase over the life of the program should be acquired up front. Just 1/3 of the Land and Water Conservation Fund's annual deposits could acquire all of the land targeted for purchase by MSCP over 30 years! It would also go a long way to relieve the unfounded fears of some citizens regarding property rights. If leaders are sincere about the MSCP, they will secure the funding to make it a success - now - at the beginning of the process.

I want this program to move forward and succeed. It is time for the major players to ante up if the game is going to continue. Landowners are being asked to pay their own way; they are being asked to mitigate. In Santee, American General Corporation is being asked to avoid, or not to develop, about half of the Fanita Ranch. If we want them to do more and we do then we need to compensate them for the remainder.

I am optimistic however, that important acquisitions can take place. Why? About $20 million is slated to come into the process for acquisitions this year alone from Federal and State sources. Major purchases have taken place already to begin building the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge and the MHPA preserve. For example, 480 acres of Lambron Otay Lakes properties and the 3,000 acre Daley Ranch in Escondido have been purchased for open space.

The MSCP can be another tool in the effort to save endangered species and our quality-of-life. Let's keep working to make it a success.

If you'd like to help, join Preserve Wild Santee - there is no membership fee, but donations are accepted. A 24-print color photo book, "Fanita Ranch: Santee's Open Space Treasure," is available for $20. Write to: 9222 Lake Canyon Road Santee, CA 92071. Tel./Fax: 619-258-7929. E-Mail: VKC27ix.netcom. com