Habits, habitat, and the sum of us

“I never saw California looking more beautiful. The tremendous rains out here have washed away all the real estate signs.” - Will Rogers (March 14, 1927)

by Robert T. Nanninga

received a letter from a reader asking for a clarification regarding a statement made in a previous column. As someone who digs the interactive journalist thing, I am happy to respond to questions readers may have about something I've said.

    Al Rowe of Encinitas has asked me to clarify my statement: “... it is impossible to protect intact habitats with viable flora and fauna.”

    The column to which he was referring included my opinion that the Multiple Habitat Conservation Program (MHCP) was doomed to failure as long as the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) continued, “accommodating economic development” without an honest assessment of the ecology and biological constraints of the region. Mr. Rowe “thought intact habitats coexisted with viable populations of native flora and fauna.” I guess this Lucy has “some splainin' to do.”

    To begin with, let's get the definitions out of the way so that we can freely ponder the operative term of Mr. Rowe's inquiry. Using my frayed Dictionary of Ecology and Environmental Science as reference, I offer these distinctions as the foundation of my earlier statement, and any that may follow.

    Habitat: The place where an animal or plant normally lives or grows, usually characterized either by physical features or by dominant plants. Deserts, lakes, and forests are all habitats.

    Flora: All of the plants of a particular region or a particular era. For example, the flora of the Florida Keys.

    Fauna: All of the animals of a particular region or a particular era. For example, the fauna of New Zealand.

    Biotic community: All the groups of organisms that share the same habitat or feeding area, usually interacting or depending on each other for existence.

    Habitat Loss: The destruction of living places for animals and plants, especially by human activity such as development. Filling wetlands and replacing a forest with a parking lot for a shopping mall results in habitat loss.

    The native habitat of our coastal region is generally considered to be coastal sage scrub. There are also wetland distinctions such as riparian, estuarine, and intertidal. The kelp forests off the coast are considered a habitat as well. The flora and fauna of the region, too numerous to name here, coexist in relationship with where they are on the planet.

    Certain physical features make up our region, the first and foremost our geography. We sit on the edge of a continent, in a semiarid desert, where lack of rain and dry desert winds make wildfires a vibrant member of the biotic community. Fog plays a huge part in maintaining the flora that maintains the fauna. In other words, we are a place of extreme conditions masked by deceptively pleasant weather. Native plants and animals have evolved in such away as to insure continued survival. And then there are the humans.

    Included in his letter, Mr. Rowe stated, “I consider fauna to be animals and not people.” It is evident that the people responsible for planning at SANDAG share this view. Which begs the question: what are humans, if not fauna? According to the aforementioned Dictionary of Ecological and Environmental Science, we are monkeys with big brains and small arms:

    Hominidae: A family of primates, Hominidae, whose single living species, Homo sapiens, the humans, differs from it's closest relatives, the pongids, in having smaller canine teeth, shorter arms, a greatly enlarged brain, and fully developed bipedal motion.

    By replacing native habitat with an artificial one more to our liking, perhaps we can no longer be considered fauna. As we distance ourselves from the biotic community that shares the habitat of this distinct region with asphalt and cement, we substitute a self-perpetuating ecosystem with “artificial” environments unable to meet the basic survival needs of humans, let alone species unable to adapt to an unnatural world of stucco and steel.

    It is important to remember the context of this inquiry is based in the collective delusion embraced by SANDAG. My opinion is based in the understanding that, as long as the population of humans continues to increase, populations of native plants and animals will continue to decrease to the point where none of them will be able to survive. No amount of pro-environment rhetoric can mitigate the reality of habitat loss associated with making room for more and more humans.

    Robert Nanninga is a free-lance writer, producer and environmental journalist. A native of Vista living in Leucadia, he Chairs San Diego ZPG, as well as representing coastal North County on the Green County Council