Photo Credit: Jerre Stallcup
May 22, 2013

Roar of the Gnatcatcher

From the trenches of conservation planning in southern California

Many people think there is nothing left to conserve in southern California, that it has all been developed.  But they are wrong. 

Over the past 20 years of participation in land-use planning and conservation in this region, I have been surrounded by intense emotion and conflict, to the extreme of needing to be escorted by armed policemen into meeting halls.  But, my story is also one of transformation and conservation successes.  Through this process, new methods of land-use planning were advanced, and we demonstrated that a solution-oriented approach to advocacy, guided by science, could open doors to common sense land use planning, and collaborative relationships with multiple stakeholders.

During the southern California development boom of the 1980s, one species after another was listed as Threatened or Endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), as a result of habitat loss to development.  (The developers jokingly referred to themselves as the “species-of-the-month” club.)  However, it wasn’t the Endangered Species Act that launched the war on conservation planning in San Diego County in the 1980s.  Nor was it the State of California’s much-heralded Natural Community Conservation Planning (NCCP) Act in 1993.  Rather, the first winds of conservation planning in San Diego−and a major paradigm shift in regional land use planning in general−were spawned as a result of compliance with the Clean Water Act. 

The City of San Diego had been receiving waivers for advanced primary treatment (as opposed to the required secondary treatment) of wastewater from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  It was decided that a $3 billion upgrade of sewage treatment facilities was needed to comply with the Clean Water Act and that this upgrade would have growth-inducing impacts in San Diego County.  To mitigate in advance for these growth-inducing impacts, the USFWS required the City to prepare a regional, multi-species Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP), for all of the 500,000-acre area that contributed to the wastewater treatment plant, to determine which areas should be conserved for wildlife and which areas could be developed to accommodate the anticipated population growth.

Planning for the San Diego Multiple Species Conservation Program (MSCP) officially began in 1991, but it was stridently opposed by the development community, who took every opportunity to thwart and discredit the early biological analyses informing development of the plan.  Then, the California gnatcatcher was listed as Threatened in 1993; at the time, it was the only listed species of the coastal sage scrub community, which occupies the same relatively flat coastal lands most desirable for development in southern California.  The listing literally shut down development in southern California−the much anticipated “train wreck” cited by then Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt. 

A moratorium on development was partially averted by taking advantage of the special Section 4(d) rule of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) under which the gnatcatcher was listed.  The 4(d) rule allowed some “take” of the gnatcatcher and its habitat in exchange for participating in the State of California’s newly created NCCP program (1993, amended 2003), developed by the governor and a group of business leaders as a voluntary, stakeholder-driven HCP-type program for multiple species, both listed and not listed. 

Previously that year, anticipating the economic impact of listing the gnatcatcher, the State of California denied a proposal for its listing, and instead created the NCCP program which, like the federal HCP program, allows impacts to the species and its habitat in exchange for conservation of the most important habitat for the species.  The pilot program for testing the effectiveness of the NCCP was the southern California coastal sage scrub community.

At this point, let me set the stage for the paradigm shift that occurred in land use planning in southern California during the 1990s—from facility- or place-based planning to resource-based planning.  This alone was an enormous threat to the development community and political decision-makers.  The overwhelmingly Republican region has a long history of City Councils and Boards of Supervisors being controlled by the well-oiled, comfortably funded machine of the southern California development industry, which was politically savvy and strategically savage.  Also, remember that, even at that time in the late 1980s/early 1990s, the political focus was on changing, rather than upholding the ESA−at least until the Clinton administration came into office.  This era also saw the birth of a new type of environmental advocate, one focused on science, common sense land use planning, and collaborative relationships with developers instead of simply a passion for the resources and objections to any development at all.  And standing on the sidelines—missing an opportunity to test out the principles of conservation biology—an academic community that refused to engage in the process, except to criticize the lack of science, without understanding the challenges of integrating scientific decisions into land use planning and the political decision-making process.

At stake in this civil war in southern California were billions of dollars of coastal real estate and the careers of many people in the building industry and politics, and on the other side, conservation of one of 25 hotspots of biodiversity in the world−the South Coast Ecoregion of southern California.

In the beginning, the development community vehemently fought this new land use planning approach, where its customary tactics no longer worked.  The developers and their own consultants were unable to deny, with data, the biological value of the lands being prioritized for conservation.  The scientific evidence was overwhelming and sound.  Similarly, they were unable to substantiate, with data, the effectiveness of the Public Lands Only preserve alternative they had proposed.  But when the California gnatcatcher was federally listed and the NCCP Act was adopted in 1993, the trajectory of the planning process changed with the engagement of the development community.

The San Diego MSCP planning process continued for 7 years.  As project manager of the consultant team developing the biological basis for the MSCP, I reported to a 25-member Working Group of representatives from resource agencies, local jurisdictions, developers, and the environmental community.  I was unmarried at the time, living alone, and spent my days and nights at weekly Working Group meetings, endless City Council and Board of Supervisor hearings, supervising a team of biologists that surveyed over 100,000 acres of public lands and analyzed populations and potential impacts to endangered plant and animal species, training a staff of GIS analysts in what became the first analytical use of GIS in the county, making weekend field visits to gain my own perspective of every corner of the study area, whether proposed for development or conservation, and remotely providing scientific advice for midnight negotiations among individual stakeholders in the process.  I was often escorted by armed policemen into meeting halls packed with angry property owners protesting that their property rights were being abused by identifying land as important for conservation.  As it turned out, selling their land for mitigation was probably the best economic return some of the property owners could have hoped for.

Because this was the first and largest multi-jurisdictional, multi-species plan in the United States, there was considerable attention and funding from the highest levels of state and federal governments to demonstrate that such a process could work.  And there was considerable political pressure on a small group of us to make sure that it was successful and completed within a timeframe governed by terms of political office and congressional debates on the ESA.

As stakeholders in this process−developers, environmentalists, agency staff, consultants−we spent a lot of time together and got to know one another very well−through the incredible stresses of the process, through marriages, divorces, births, deaths, graduations, illnesses−our lives were entwined through it all.  I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis within 9 months of beginning the planning process, undoubtedly triggered (but not caused) by the stress of my job.  The leaders in the environmental community were the inspiration for me to stand my ground on the scientific basis for the MSCP and to persist throughout the process, in spite of my illness.  It was these environmental leaders who ultimately inspired me to leave consulting and join the NGO world to make conservation a full-time job, because I saw how solution-oriented advocacy, guided by science, could be successful.

Indeed the MSCP has been successful.  Over 150,000 acres have been conserved so far, and other NCCP programs have been launched in San Diego County and elsewhere in California.  We learned a lot, but still have so far to go.  Today, there is the challenge of designing and implementing a coordinated management and monitoring program across the multiple jurisdictions in the region.

Ironically, a few years after the MSCP was approved, the EPA gave the City of San Diego yet another waiver for Clean Water Act requirements, and the $3 billion wastewater treatment upgrades were never made, arguably precluding the need for the MSCP.  Yet, the tiny California gnatcatcher−weighing all of 0.2 oz (6 g), its call a distinctive “mew” − has roared.

About the author:
Jerre Ann Stallcup, M.A.
Chief Resources Officer
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