The results of work by the Multiple Species Conservation Program will help decide the fate of 97 endangered species and between 85,000 and 200,000 acres of land in San Diego County. This critical project is almost unknown by the general public. Not for much longer.

MSCP plans the future of conservation in San Diego

by Lori Saldaña
n December 1993, an 1,800-page "working draft" for an ambitious regional conservation program and ecosystem reserve for San Diego County was finally unveiled. Called the San Diego Multiple Species Conservation Program (or simply the MSCP), it was presented to the group of people who have been guiding its creation since 1989 - a diverse blend of conservationists, developers and representatives of public development agencies.
The imposing size of this draft document reflects the scope of its two main goals. On one hand, it is an ambitious effort to protect nearly 100 diverse species of wildlife, plants and insects native to San Diego County. At the same time, it seeks to make enough land available to local developers to meet the projected needs for housing and growth throughout San Diego County for the next 20 to 50 years.

A clean start

The impetus for this program was San Diego's ever-growing demand for better water and sewage treatment utilities. To attempt to meet these needs, the city of San Diego began a "Clean Water Program" in 1989, and drafted plans to build facilities throughout the county to improve services to its customers. The federal government required the city to complete Environmental Impact Reviews (EIRs) of these projects, which were then evaluated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Field Office in Carlsbad.
After reviewing the plans, USFW concluded their environmental impact would be so widespread that a county-wide mitigation program to offset the effects of the development would be required. The "mitigation" in this case was the creation of a comprehensive plan (the MSCP) to protect the native plants, animals and insects that would be disrupted by the activities of the water project itself, such as trenching, bulldozing, and building construction.

Working group gets to work

This led to the formation of the Multiple Species Conservation Program Working Group. It is made up of people working on the Clean Water Program, local planning and developmental agencies, members of conservation and environmental organizations, and representatives from various cities throughout San Diego County that share these water services with the city of San Diego.
The first phase of the program, completed in 1993, was the creation of biological resource maps for all of San Diego county. These are similar to the maps Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt wants to create as part of a nationwide "biological survey." These maps show the location of many types of existing vegetation and animal species. The maps will help planners create a "network of potential wildlife preserves and connecting wildlife corridors," according to an early description of the MSCP.
The description also refers to the MSCP's second phase, scheduled to begin this year, which involves "the acquisition of lands and the establishment and operation of the wildlife preserve network planning in phase one." However, exact estimates of the number of acres to be acquired vary, ranging from 85,000 to 200,000 acres.

How much protection?

The working draft identified "core resource areas" throughout the county that are essential for inclusion in the final reserve design. It also offered four alternatives of varying levels of protection for native wildlife and plant species.
According to Dan Silver, MSCP Working Group member and coordinator of the Endangered Habitats League, "the most comprehensive proposal provides Endangered Species Act-type protection for 61 plant and animal species ranging from the California gnatcatcher to Gander's butterweed."
Avoiding costly legal battles over the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) is yet another goal of the MSCP. By creating a permanent reserve for native species that are already listed or are in the process of being listed under the ESA, it is estimated that the MSCP will save everyone money in the long run.
But Working Group member James Whalen is concerned that the time involved with developing the final MSCP is yet another deterrent to recovery for San Diego's beleaguered development industry. Whalen represents the owners of some of the largest tracts of undeveloped land in western San Diego county. As he sees it, "By trying to do so much up front, we'll be shut down longer."
Silver doesn't agree, and notes that the working draft includes "an economic comparison made between a comprehensive reserve and a "no project" alternative. Assuming a fair share of state and federal funding, the comprehensive approach results in greater personal income, lower housing costs, and higher local sales and property tax revenues. Open space makes sense!"
While this final phase still must be decided, the program to date represents three years of planning and nearly $3 million in operational expense. It has forged an uneasy alliance between developers and conservationists, but many battles remain, including one over an alternative included in the final draft.
Called the "Public Lands" alternative, it seeks to preserve development projects for a group of private property owners whose lands may include prime California gnatcatcher habitat - already listed under the ESA as a "threatened" species.
Also being negotiated, are the details of purchasing acquisitions. Who will pay? Developers? The Federal government? Taxpayers? All of the above?
These and other questions will be deferred to a new "MSCP Policy Committee," to be made up of elected officials from the various cities involved. At some point in 1994, they will have the final say on which species, land parcels and development plans become part of the first Multiple Species Conservation Program ever created. And many people believe the eyes of the nation will be watching to see if it succeeds.

Lori Saldaña is a writer, public speaker and photographer who specializes in conservation and environmental issues.

In their own words ... interviews with MSCP working group members

Karen Scarborough

Karen Scarborough is assistant to the mayor of San Diego for public resources and chairwoman of the MSCP Working Group. She joined the MSCP process in July 1991. Prior to that she was chairwoman of the Open Space Committee of Citizen's Coordinated for Century Three (C-3)

ET: Why were you invited to participate in the working group?
KS: I was asked to come on by Ann Van Leer in Ron Robert's office. She thought the working group needed C-3's input. Sierra Club was also added, several months after the process had begun. Up to that time it was city departments and developers, without much environmental input.
Open space has always been my heartfelt interest. A regional open space system - a balance of development on the land - has been a personal goal of mine for many years.
I came from an understanding of how [development and conservation] can work together. You're a steward of the land, your charge is to protect the land, but accommodate human use of it, too. My professional background puts me in the middle ground. As chair, I can relate to both sides, and see the need for them to come together and relate as one.

ET: What has helped you be successful in this endeavor?
KS: It's the ability I seem to have to pull out a consensus from a firestorm of discussion, making peace. I'm direct, and want people to stay direct and not drift off.

ET: What questions remain to be answered before the MSCP goes to the City Council?
KS: These are the biggies: How big is it going to be? How many species is it going to cover? How much is it going to cost? Are we going to draw lines? Where is it going to be? Am I in or out of it? How does it affect me? . . .
Developers don't want to get stuck with the bill. ... All the taxpayers say you're crazy if you're going to raise taxes to pay for this. But CalPAW '94 [a proposed bond initiative to purchase sensitive lands throughout California] is out there - which could bring us some money. AB 2007 is legislation to allow the county to do an open-space assessment district, so that's another area where we might get some funds.

Dave Flesh

Dave Flesh is project manager of the MSCP. He has a background in Environmental Research, Engineering and Economics. We asked him about the MSCP's history since he was involved with the original Clean Water Program ElRs that led to the creation of the MSCP.

ET: What areas are served by the MSCP?
DF: The program serves not only the city of San Diego but 11 cities in the county, plus some of the unincorporated county. With a service area that large we were really looking at a regional mitigation program from the start.

ET: How was the working group created?
DF: They [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] felt for the plan to be truly successful, it would be great to have input from other developers, both public sector and private sector . . .
So we rounded up representatives from public sector developers and private sector developers - private land developers. They brought in resource agencies and representatives from a number of environmental and conservation groups to sit around the table and help us with this plan. They also brought in representatives from the cities within our service area that have the most at stake - the largest amounts of remaining native vegetation.
We brought in the county because of the substantial amount of native vegetation that remains in the undeveloped, unincorporated parts of the county.

ET: Why is so much land involved in this project?
DF: To ultimately come up with a reserve system that would be of sufficient size and contain sufficient habitat communities to preclude, hopefully, the need to list any future species [as threatened or endangered] well into the foreseeable future.

ET: What will this program mean for the nation?
DF: We think we're on the right track, that the rest of the country will end up one way or another following our example. We've been told [by Bruce Babbitt, secretary of the Department of the Interior] that we have a model that's going to have national impact.

Michael Beck

Michael Beck is a San Diego County planning commissioner who also is involved with the Multiple Habitat Conservation programs being developed elsewhere in the county.

ET: Can you describe the scope and importance of this program?
MB: It's an opportunity to use this mandate. We have to create these multiple-habitat reserves and address a multitude of quality-of-life issues - they're all connected. We will never have a better opportunity for examining these things.
It seems that when we begin to address an issue as significant as habitat planning, we generally lose sight of the corollary to the planning effort. That is, when the reserves are designed, drawn out and ultimately implemented - almost deductively - this will define other areas in the county that will be appropriate for development . . .
There is an opportunity for the decision-makers in the County to take this [MSCP] plan and coordinate it with other land-use planning, quality-of-life issues such as urban limit lines and redevelopment. Not redevelopment imposed on some jurisdiction just because we need to put the density somewhere, but rather, some visionary sorts of redevelopment that are geared toward transportation corridors and light rail systems - 21st century thinking.

Nancy Gilbert

Nancy Gilbert is a supervisory biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at their Carlsbad field station. She has been involved with the MSCP since 1989 when it first began as part of the mitigation process in the Clean Water Program.

ET: What do you consider the most significant accomplishments in this program so far?
NG: A very good land-use database for the region has been developed. Overlaid with this is the development of the working group itself to pursue a resolution of issues.
I think the concept of regional planning has entered the arena of something that needs to be done. And people are aware of it as a concept. I think that's an accomplishment.

ET: How do you see the role of community education at work?
NG: I think community involvement, education, and understanding the concept is essential. Outreach should be occurring now, not waiting until the plan is complete. The concept, the need, the benefits and the reality of it should be up for discussion. Really, the whole process.
For decades communities have recognized the value of long-term planning. They plan for their community structure and character. They plan and coordinate their jurisdiction for their infrastructure, roads and sewer lines. But planning has never before occurred on a regional basis for their biological resources.

ET: Will that make the MSCP hard for people to accept?
NG: It's never happened before. We have to play catch-up. We have to address the fact that some of our resources, like vernal pools, are down to their last 3 percent. Or down to their last 10 percent, like some of our native grasslands. That makes it much more difficult than if we had been planning over the past 20 years. It makes it harder to catch up on any planning effort when it hasn't happened previously.

James Whalen

James Whalen is the vice-chairman of the MSCP Working Group, and chairman of the Alliance for Habitat Conservation, an association of landowners formed in 1989 to address endangered species issues in San Diego County. He is a wildlife biologist by education who has been in the development business for 10 years.

ET: What impacts are your organizations most concerned with?
JW: Economic impact; land use impact; the tax revenues that jurisdictions may or may not have counted on; the cost of acquiring the land from landowners who may or may not have development plans ... those sorts of thoughts are getting to be better known.
The building industry is there to provide all the necessary economic overviews, not just on the construction industry. This is an important part of the whole regional economic situation. Everyone thinks this is exclusively a development issue, but it's not. It's an economic viability program for the whole Southern California region.
If, for example, there are 300,000 vacant acres in the MSCP proposed reserve area, two out of three of those vacant acres are considered high or very high habitat value and go into the reserve. It would mean that you wouldn't be able to come close to meeting the projected demand for housing into 2015 according to SANDAG [San Diego Association of Governments]. And that would be a big problem. If you could only accommodate 45 percent of the housing you need because you have a large reserve system, then the reserve is too big from one perspective. On the other hand, if it doesn't do the job biologically, then it's too small.

ET: Is one of your concerns the number of species involved?
JW: Think of the complexity of trying to protect 94 different species all at once. My position is to add those species that we know more about - particularly the gnatcatcher - to get the habitat planning done for that, and let the rest bring up the rear.

ET: When would you address these other species?
JW: Between two to seven years, not 40. It's our concern that by trying to do so much up front we'll be shut down longer. Business in San Diego is shut down today. With the gnatcatcher listed, you can't do anything until that's addressed.

Dan Silver

Dan Silver, M.D., is coordinator of the Endangered Habitats League. His work on protecting the Santa Rosa Plateau led to a successful drive to list the California gnatcatcher as a threatened species. He serves as the EHL's representative to the MSCP Working Group and the Implementation and Finance Committee.

ET: What do you want people to know about the finances of this plan?
DS: First of all, that it's going to be affordable. If the public's shares are spread broadly, it will really have no measurable impact on people's finances.
Second, it will provide many long-term benefits for the economy and the quality of life. I think it's a very wise investment in the future and will be a real benefit to San Diego. It will hopefully prevent future endangered species listings.

ET: What is the role of the Implementation and Finance Committee?
DS: We're trying to figure out how to pay for land acquisition, what the equity should be, and what the obligations of the local government, public at large, federal and state governments and development community are.

ET: Why is this program so important to the EHL?
DS: There's another very important conservation objective: to integrate this habitat plan with better land use planning in general. That is, more compact development, less sprawl. If we do that we'll avoid many problems in the future.

ET: Some people would ask why we have to save every species. How would you reply?
DS: Well, that's really a philosophical argument. I think every species has a right to exist. But even those who don't agree with this concept do agree that it makes economic sense to try to be pro-active. We must get out in front of these endangered species listings so we don't have any more disruption. So the MSCP Working Group has a consensus on the need to do comprehensive multiple species planning, even though people may have different reasons for it.
My reasons may be different from the developers', but nevertheless we do have a consensus on it. Although there are some extreme elements in the development community who are trying very hard to obstruct the process, I think they're more on the fringe.

Call to action - what you can do

In the next step of the MSCP process, a special "policy committee" will begin evaluating the options prsented in the working draft. Sitting on this committee will be elected officials, listed below, who will decide the final design of the MSCP, including: how much land will be reserved, which species will be involved, and how will it be funded.
To request more information, to stay informed of the MSCP process, or to let the policy committee members know what you think about MSCP, please write to:
Board of Supervisors
County of San Diego
1600 Pacific Highway, Room 335
San Diego, CA 92101

Mayor and City Council
City of Chula Cista
276 Fourth Avenue
Chula Vista, CA 91910

Mayor and City Council
City of Santee
10765 Woodside Avenue
Santee, CA 92071

Mayor and City Council
City of Poway
13325 Civic Center Drive
Poway, CA 92064

Mayor and City Council
City of San Diego
202 C Street, 11th floor
San Diego, CA 92101
Attn: Karen Scarborough