by Carolyn Chase
he City and County of San Diego, the U.S. Department of Interior, Fish & Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish & Game are about to embark on a grand experiment in implementing both the federal and state Endangered Species Acts, called the Multiple Species Conservation Plan, or MSCP. The MSCP is a visionary and valiant attempt to carve out connected open space preserves that will hopefully provide enough habitat to prevent local plant and animal extinctions.
The theory goes like this: species go extinct because we build on top of their habitat. So, we'll figure out how much habitat space is needed for the critters, save it, and viola! mo more extinction.
The reality is more along the lines of: how much is left that is worth saving and that we can afford to try and save. For five years, representatives of the Mayor's Office, landowners, the building industry, government staff from all relevant bodies and a few hardy conservation volunteers have struggled to pull together a workable plan.
I applaud their efforts. It has already made a difference.
But it's optimistic or a bit naive to say that these plans are about conservation. After all, at the heart of the model is the premise that we are going to kill endangered species in order to save them. This premise can only make sense if you understand the property-rights orientation of the approach, combined with realization of just how bad the prospects are for endangered species with the status quo.
The guiding force of the contractual arrangements implementing the plans is the landowner assurances. The contracts are about developers and land speculators getting certainty about building, and not having to worry that they could be stopped by such mundane considerations as endangered species. In exchange for the right to "take" endangered species habitat, they will be paying into a mitigation pot at a predetermined rate. We are hoping and I mean that term literally because there is limited scientific justification that this will be enough. In addition, taxpayers will be asked to make up the difference by buying much of the land to make up the preserve. What if it's not enough? Aside from changing management of the agreed-upon open space, the only option is to buy more land on the open market if it's available. The feds and the state are agreeing that "no additional land, no additional land restrictions and no additional financial compensation beyond that required pursuant to this Agreement....." shall be required of the local jurisdiction and so-called "Third Party Beneficiaries." (i.e., the developers).
The signing of the so-called "Implementing Agreement" by the city, state and federal officials will no doubt be touted as a "model for the nation." But the industry-brokers in this region are well on their way to turning this into a mega-opolis only slightly nicer than L.A. What any environmentalist or conservation group could achieve at the negotiating table is not necessarily the best deal for conservation or the public good.
The idea of differing stakeholders sitting down to work together is certainly an aspect to be applauded. But it does not mean that what we have today is the best answer for conservation.
The idea that connected blocks of open space should be identified and conserved or purchased should be a part of such a model. However, the premise that protections for natural resources outside such an open space preserve should be reduced or eliminated is not the best answer for conservation or people's quality of life in the remaining urbanized areas.
Specifically, the idea that no more land and no more money and no additional "land use restrictions" will ever be required of local jurisdictions or property owners is not soundly based in either science or the fairness within which the rest of American public might wish to see conservation take place. Instead, it represents the political trade-offs and culture of today.
But since this is the best we could do today, I applaud it and at the same time call for semper vigilanti. I am looking forward to future negotiations over the conservation of wetlands and other important community issues governing decisions to be made on development outside the preserve.
Note: The County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to approve their MSCP Subarea Plan for portions of the County on July 23, beginning at 10am when they will take additional public testimony.
The byline on the article A gentle place our June issue should have been given to Linda DiBona... One reader wrote to tell me that there are more ticket machines at the Old Town Trolley Station than the one I was able to find, and that you can purchase tickets at the store inside the station, though it was not open when I was there. . . Finally, the email address for Californians for Quality of Life, cqualznet.com, was not working for a time last month, so if you tried to send a message and it bounced back, try again. It's working now. We apologize for these errors.