In May of 1991, the Endangered Habitats League was founded at Starr Ranch Audubon Sanctuary as a coalition of groups – eventually totaling over 50 – to list the California gnatcatcher as an endangered species.

We knew that this listing was the only hope for the coastal sage scrub ecosystem, then being decimated by development. Coastal sage scrub is an aromatic, garden-like community including sage and buckwheat that once covered vast tracts of land. The end game had begun. Could we leverage gnatcatcher listing into ecosystem protection?

The building industry and the Orange County toll road agencies had already mobilized to fight the listing. After our campaign succeeded in placing the bird on the federal endangered species list, EHL reestablished itself in 1993 as a membership organization in order to participate in the regional multiple species plans that the listing had catalyzed. This new and untested approach – called Natural Community Conservation Planning, or NCCP – was based on science and cooperation with local governments and the private sector. As it also provides permits for development, it inevitably involved trade-offs. But it also promised a comprehensive approach rather than inadequate project-specific outcomes.

As chronicled below, EHL has made a difference by putting full time staff on the ground and engaging in a professional way with a high level of detail. We’re also there year after year. In other words, we do what the opposition does. Collaboration remains our primary tool, although many lawsuits have also been necessary. We continually partner with local organizations, and to further advance our mission, in 2005 we formed a land trust called Endangered Habitats Conservancy.

This special edition summarizes “then and now”: how the cause has fared over the last two decades.