Welshing on its promise, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has abandoned its commitment to bring federally owned land on the former El Toro Marine base into the Central-Coastal Natural Community Conservation Plan/Habitat Conservation Plan (NCCP/HCP).

Currently in the hands of the Federal Aviation Administration, this prime habitat is now set for transfer to the FBI as a law enforcement training facility. This portends grave impacts not only to wildlife but to adjacent residential communities.

A forgotten gem was uncovered in 1995, when a 900-acre corner of the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro was found to have rare, low elevation coastal sage scrub with astonishingly high densities of coastal cactus wrens and federally listed California gnatcatchers. The land is also a wildlife corridor, and its grasslands are important for burrowing owl and vernal pool restoration. The NCCP/HCP Implementing Agreement called for the USFWS to bring this biologically irreplaceable federal land – termed the El Toro Conservation Area – into the reserve system.

After more than 15 years of delay and excuses, the USFWS has finally admitted it has no intention to live up to its commitment, thus facilitating transfer to the FBI. FBI plans from 2007 show major expansion of live ammunition training facilities in the very center of the Conservation Area. While the FBI currently disavows these plans, a biological analysis prepared for EHL and Laguna Greenbelt, Inc. shows that, if built, the training facilities – including multiple outdoor rifle ranges, parking lots, night lighting, etc. – would violate the core principles of reserve design, produce irretrievable habitat fragmentation and edge effects, remove the last remaining habitat in Orange County for the southern grasshopper mouse, and preclude connectivity between the Orange County Great Park to the south and other reserve lands.

While the Endangered Species Act would still apply after transfer, it would protect only a fraction of the total NCCP values. If and when the FBI chooses to expand its operations, the Service’s decision sets up a piecemeal loss of wildlife habitat over time. Also, if built, FBI rifle ranges would expose already approved adjacent residential development to the hazard of stray bullets and pose a clear danger to wandering, curious children. It is telling that the FBI has refused to enter a pre-transfer agreement on future uses with the City of Irvine, within whose municipal boundaries the site lies.

To explain its failure, the Service claimed lack of management funds, though this excuse evaporated when NCCP partners offered to foot the bill. It then cited concerns over hazardous materials liability, though the Navy has cleaned up the site on schedule and has full legal responsibility for any future problems. The Service never conducted a formal contaminants assessment.

Over the years, EHL and others made intense efforts to get the FWS commitment realized. EHL traveled to Sacramento and Washington, DC and met with top agency officials, built a coalition with other stakeholders, tried to secure Congressional support, and identified an alternative location for the law enforcement training. But the bottom line is that the USFWS Regional Office in Sacramento, headed first by Steve Thompson and then his successor, Ren Lohoefener, decided to turn their backs on Southern California’s wildlife and on the NCCP/HCP signatories. As a result, the Orange County Central-Coastal plan – a precedent-setting effort that was first of its kind in the nation – will now never be completed.

While the Service expects others to meet their Habitat Conservation Plan obligations, it exempts itself. The only word that fits is: shame.

Photo of El Toro Conservation Area courtesy of Jerry Burchfield