When the first plans were adopted in the 1990s, risks were acknowledged. Now, concerns are building.

Launched in 1991 with great fanfare, regional habitat plans covering vast areas and dozens of species, held great promise. Called Natural Communities Conservation Plans under a new state law, and coupled with large scale Habitat Conservation Plans at the federal level, the plans sought to resolve the environmental-economic conflicts set in motion by the California gnatcatcher and other endangered species listings. State-local-federal partnership was the central idea. The appeal to conservationists was an ecosystem approach. Developers found expedited permitting, and local governments got infrastructure built. Plans in Orange, Riverside, and San Diego quickly followed, with EHL a major participant and supporter.

The plans were of two general types – those fully assembled on “day one” and those that needed to assembled over years and decades. For both types, the obvious initial question was whether they would work biologically, given the preexisting depletion of habitat and the political compromises that were made with developers. Only time will fully answer this question, but given the unholy dominance of development interests in local government decision-making, the plans promised achieve the best possible conservation outcome, by leveraging state and federal laws and by involving the land use authority of local government as a contributor to conservation.

For the plans assembled over time, an initial question was whether acquisition funds would be sufficient over the long term. Initially, the money flowed. But alarmingly, at both the state and federal levels there has been a loss of interest in the once novel plans. State bonds acts have provided relatively little assistance and federal outlays have continued – albeit at very low levels – only due to an effective champion in Congress and the diligence of the Riverside habitat agency. Local funding sources have done better, with mitigation fees in Riverside, a transportation sales tax in San Diego, and exemplary use of its general fund by the County of San Diego. Both development and conservation stakeholders have worked diligently together on funding. But overall, the lack of follow through by the state and federal governments is extremely serious.

Underneath the obvious questions were more subtle uncertainties. For those plans – like Riverside and San Diego – requiring decades of painstaking assembly of narrow corridors and intact habitat blocks, prerequisites are steady local government commitment and continued partnership with the wildlife agencies. Also, as circumstances change over time, adaptive management would be needed, and maybe tough decisions if things weren’t going well for particular species. 

Make no mistake: The overall picture is still positive with no major failures. But fault lines are showing which need to be faced and addressed. 

Most disconcerting is the behavior by some of the local governments to whom the wildlife agencies have delegated permitting authority. The Temecula City Council, against wildlife agency and EHL advice, used a methodology that threatens preserve assembly county-wide in order to find that a development project was compliant with the habitat plan. The City of San Diego advanced recreation trails over wildlife needs, although a resolution was eventually reached with mountain bike users. The County of San Diego has assisted a developer in not following through on land exchanges built into the plan’s permits and supported another project whose preserve design was roundly condemned by agency biologists. Once respectful partnerships with the agencies have deteriorated to the point of non-communication with local staff. 

When things go awry, the wildlife agencies have limited options to enforce adopted plans. There are no nuanced measures short of the actual pulling of permits – a major step loathsome to the agencies. 

On the question of plans adapting over time, in San Diego County, a golden eagle territory – identified in the plan as persisting – was threatened by incompatible development in a way unforeseen at the time of plan adoption. Even though the plan requires a finding to be made to that effect, and remedies explored, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to pursue the matter. It is worth noting that if the plans are not working for species, the financial burden of fixing them already shifts to the wildlife agencies.  

At this time, crises abound. Unsound preserve designs in both the County of San Diego and the City of Santee could be accepted over the objections of local staff. Permitting decisions for the endangered quino checkerspot butterfly could result in its extirpation from San Diego if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not follow the best science. In San Bernardino, there is overwhelming evidence that a massive floodplain development would “jeopardize” the endangered San Bernardino kangaroo rat. But applicants now routinely travel to Washington, D.C. to pressure the Service.

Normal growing pains or the beginning of the end for those habitat plans which require assembly over time? In any case, our continued engagement and vigilance is essential.