Multiple Species Conservation Program

If San Diego is going to save any substantial part of its natural habitat, it will probably be the MSCP that helps do it.

by Tom Oberbauer


San Diego County is known nationwide for the tremendous diversity of its plants and animals, and for the number of species that would be considered rare or endangered. A study in the January 1997 issue of Science magazine listed San Diego County as one of two counties in the United States that are considered “hot spots” for containing unique and unusual species.

    San Diego County has also been known for its tremendous population growth associated with military, tourism and technological industries. Unfortunately, the growth rate and the number of unusual species was heading this region toward what former Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt described as a “train wreck.” Although the California Environmental Quality Act required reduction and mitigation of impacts from development projects, as development occurred it usually created small areas of open space that were disconnected from other habitat areas, and sometimes too small to support any significant populations of wildlife.

    Furthermore, as individual species were listed as rare and endangered by the California State or Federal Government, local agencies, wildlife agencies and property owners would scramble to determine the most appropriate way that the species could be protected, sometimes resulting in small areas of open space and often causing confusion and conflict with economic growth issues.

What is the Plan?


    In the early 1990s, a concept grew out of the Federal Endangered Species Act to create coordinated plans to deal with the high number of sensitive species as well as the development. These plans, known as Habitat Conservation Plans, create a process in which the most important habitat areas are identified and conserved. In return, development could be streamlined into the areas that are less biologically important.

    Because San Diego County contains such a high number of sensitive and potentially rare and endangered species, particularly associated with the Coastal sage scrub habitat the home of the Federally threatened California gnatcatcher the Habitat Conservation Plan was taken a step further to address a large number of species at the same time. This created the concept of a Multiple Species Conservation Program Plan. This plan assessed 85 species that were already listed as rare and endangered.

    The Multiple Species Conservation Program (MSCP) Plan was the result of 6 years of intense planning and review by a diverse group of private conservationists and developers, as well as a number of public agencies, including the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game. This particular plan covers the southwestern portion of San Diego County and consists of 582,000 acres and includes the Cities of San Diego, Poway, Chula Vista, Santee, El Cajon, La Mesa, Lemon Grove, Imperial Beach, National City and a portion of San Diego County's unincorporated area. An overall plan was approved by the City of San Diego in March of 1997. For each jurisdiction to become participants in the plan, they must adopt their own Subarea Plan. The City of Poway adopted their subarea plan in 1995. The County of San Diego adopted a Subarea Plan for the unincorporated portion of the MSCP in October of 1997. Since then, the City of Chula Vista has also adopted a plan.

What does the plan do?


    Each of the different jurisdictions will adopt plans that are slightly different from one another. In the case of the City of San Diego, the plan consists of a series of potential preserve areas that have restrictions of the level of development as well as a series of areas planned for development.

    The County plan is divided into 3 segments. Two of the segments contain mostly “hard line” areas in which the landowners have committed, through negotiation with the wildlife agencies and County, areas that will be set aside as preserve lands. In return, there are also areas authorized for take of habitat.

    The third segment contains no actual preserve areas, but does include land that has been identified for its biological importance. In this area, an ordinance for addressing biological mitigation provides incentives to develop in the less important habitat areas and mitigate in the areas that have been identified as important.

    There are also specific provisions that address the need to protect important populations of rare and endangered species. The overall effect of these plans is to provide for large, connected preserve areas that address a number of species at the habitat level rather than species by species, and area by area. This will create a more efficient and effective preserve system as well as provide better protection for the rare, threatened and endangered species in the coastal region.

    With these plans, exactions from development through mitigation and local and State and Federal funding protect land that has been set aside for preservation. This preservation may take the form of a Conservation Easement that dedicates the land for open space in perpetuity, or actual purchase of fee title by a public agency or environmental land trust. Out of the 582,000 acre area examined under the MSCP, the goal of the plan is to acquire or permanently protect 172,000 acres. In the three years since the plan was approved, there has been more than 15,000 acres of land purchased outright. In addition, a National Wildlife Refuge was set up over the Otay and Rancho San Diego portions of the County to assist in land acquisition. The County and City of San Diego have committed several million dollars a year toward the acquisition and maintenance of the preserve lands. There are also major programs in place to monitor and manage the lands once they are in a preserve status in order to insure the conservation of their unique resources.

What is planned for the future?


    In the northwestern portion of the County, the San Diego Association of Governments is coordinating a multiple species program referred to as the Multiple Habitat Conservation Program (MHCP) Plan. The County is also embarking on an additional subarea for the MSCP to cover the area north and east of Camp Pendleton to the Riverside County line and East to the Cleveland National Forest boundary. A final phase of the County plan will be the eastern portion of the County, encompassing the mountain and desert areas of the County.

What can you do?

    The overall goal of the MSCP and similar plans is to protect habitat in a coordinated fashion and use biological principles to insure the preservation of rare and endangered species. At the same time, it is intended to assist in reducing regulations in areas that have been identified as suitable for development.

    It is important for the public to learn and understand the programs. These plans are somewhat complicated and need careful consideration in order to understand them. Misinformation and misunderstanding about their effect can easily undermine their success.

    It must be kept in mind that these plans have focused national attention on this area so that there have been major Federal and State efforts to acquire and protect land. Positive support is critical for the continued and future success of these programs.

    For more information on the County MSCP plan, please see the County web page at For information about the City of San Diego Multiple Species Plan see: