Recreation vs. Conservation in Natural Areas

We face a quandary for which there are many solutions: the northern region of Santa Cruz County is one of the nation’s top biodiversity hotspots which is increasingly facing one of the largest threats to biodiversity – recreation within conservation areas. Globally, the coast of California is recognized as one of the most important crisis areas where natural areas tourism impact overlaps with critical conservation areas called biodiversity hotspots.

Biodiversity Hotspots

Biodiversity hotspots have been scientifically catalogued in precise ways to direct conservation funding and activities. These areas have particularly high numbers of species limited to small geographic areas, correlating with large numbers of endangered species. Areas with numerous endangered species in different groups receive higher hotspot scores: Santa Cruz County has many endangered species in three groups: ‘herptiles, arthropods, and plants,’ and so is one of only two counties in the nation to receive the highest hotspot score. Similarly, with a larger lens than county boundaries, the San Francisco Bay Area, including northern Santa Cruz County, is recognized as one of the top three biodiversity hotspots in the country. The rationale for using biodiversity hotspot indices for conservation prioritization is so widely accepted that this measure has become the focus of the most funding of any other conservation initiative, a total of $750 million up to 2010. Our region has long benefited from such largesse, including the generous funding to set aside areas like the BLM’s Cotoni Coast Dairies and POST/Sempervirens Fund’s San Vicente Redwoods conservation areas. And yet, purchasing of land for conservation purposes only begins the process of conservation, which will last many lifetimes. Fortunately, there are many strong protections in place for these areas that help to guarantee that they will long be managed primarily for biodiversity protection.

Wildlife Protected at Cotoni Coast Dairies

There are a host of guarantees for biodiversity protection at the Cotoni Coast Dairies property. In 2017, Obama’s presidential proclamation making the property a part of the California Coastal Monument there are protections for such a breadth of ‘Objects of the Monument.’ Monument designation carries with it mandates for very careful planning, inventory, and adaptive management to assure natural resource protection. In addition, the property has been designated as part of the most protected lands in the Country: National Conservation Lands. In addition, BLM maintains and regularly updates lists of ‘special status’ plants and animals to guide protections on their lands. For those interested in mandates for BLM management for biodiversity on National Monuments, I encourage perusal of their Manual 6220. Using one ‘Object of the Monument’ as an example, the 6220 Manual requires that BLM inventory the dusky footed woodrat on the property and, in collaboration with experts at its National Conservation Lands Office, include in its property-wide science plan specifics about how managers will monitor and adaptively manage the property to assure the species’ protection. Regulations protecting biodiversity on the nation’s highest value conservation lands well reflect the majority of citizen’s interests in protecting wildlife, even if it means personal sacrifice. This is good news for conservation in natural areas because of the natural conflict between recreation and conservation.

Recreational Use is Contrary to Wildlife Protection

There has been much published about the negative impacts to wildlife of recreational use in natural areas, but here are a few illustrations of types of negative impacts. The following species are listed as “Objects of the Monument:” gray fox, bobcat, and mountain lion. Predators such as these three species are well recognized as extremely sensitive to recreational use in natural areas, leading to decreased density and abundance of these types of animals. Researchers working in the Santa Cruz area have noted that mountain lions are substantially sensitive to noises from humans, which reduce their use of recreational areas and lead to changes rippling through the rest of the wildlife community, including increased numbers of mice and potential increased frequency of Lyme disease. But, mammalian predators aren’t the only types of wildlife to be disturbed by recreational use.

The Monument Proclamation also calls out protection for Wilson’s and orange-crowned warblers, downy woodpecker, tree swallow, Cooper’s hawk, and American kestrel. Burrowing owl, golden eagle, tricolored blackbird, and white-tailed kite are also listed as protected on BLM’s special status animals list for California. Some bird species have been shown to be especially ‘flighty’ in the face of recreational use, requiring study and specific trail design to adequately buffer distances to avoid impacts. While the effects on specific species varies, some species can be negatively affected by the mere presence of humans, so, unless specific studies can ascertain effects, scientists suggest that avoiding new trails in natural areas is the best measure for conserving sensitive birds. Grassland birds, such as the burrowing owl, are particularly sensitive to recreational disturbance, perhaps because it is so difficult for these species to hide. There are also studies that would suggest care must be taken to avoid recreational disturbance to species like the California red-legged frog, deer, and native plants.

BLM’s Dilemma

BLM managers of Cotoni Coast Dairies face the many dilemmas of managing land for conflicting visitor uses alongside the conflict between recreational access and nature conservation in an especially sensitive ecological area.  The varying types of recreational users run the gamut from mountain bikers who use trails for the physical thrill of staying upright with speed and obstacles…to more scenery- and/or exercise-oriented mountain bikers and hikers…to more passive recreational users such as wildlife viewers…to photographers and painters…to restorationists…and scientists of natural history. Each user group conflicts with the next and the ones further apart with their expectations conflict even worse. I have not seen a plan by BLM to accommodate or monitor such conflicting uses, which will lead to what is called displacement, mainly of families with children and more passive natural areas users. Instead, BLM managers have shown a personal and strong affinity with the mountain biking community, which is also the agency’s closest ally in advocating for and developing recreational trails designed for their use on the property. On the other hand, BLM managers have turned away from engagement with passive users such as wildlife viewers, restorationists and scientists of natural history. Without welcoming this engagement which would have made up for their professed lack of such capacity, BLM managers are now moving forward with little understanding of the distribution and abundance of species, including those protected by statute. The evident BLM managerial-mountain biking community conflict of interest should be a great concern of those of the public who are concerned with biological conservation.

The Collaborative Management Solution

We should be advocating for an alternate way forward where BLM public engagement staff serve as facilitators of solutions-based approaches to the conflicts between users and between recreational use and natural resource conservation. The first step would be for BLM to adhere to its policy requiring a science plan informed by a baseline inventory of the Objects of the Monument and other special status species; this plan would include a carrying capacity analysis and an adaptive management framework to assure protection of the resources. All of those steps could be done collaboratively with scientists and volunteers as is outlined in BLM’s policy guidance. There have been offers for substantive financial resources to assist with this planning. Instead of hiding its scientific studies as it does now, BLM would proudly share what science it has gathered on a public interactive website. Once completed, the science plan could then be the focus of collaborative management of the property including all interested parties working together with the common goal of conservation of biological diversity while providing recreational access to the maximum extent possible. We are lucky to have a coalition of many groups working to make this vision real, including: Rural Bonny Doon Association, Friends of the North Coast, Sempervirens Fund, and Davenport North Coast Association. Your support of those organizations will help greatly.

-this post originally appeared last week in my weekly column at Bruce Bratton’s weekly BrattonOnline.com

3 comments

  1. We know see construction of mountain biking trails in C-CD.

    (https://www.santacruzsentinel.com/2022/03/25/crews-cut-trails-at-to-be-opened-santa-cruz-north-coast-national-monument/)

    One can see from the pictures they are building trails in steep, forested terrain, removing soil and dumping soil and rock downslope.

    Is this project by official environment agency officials, are we depending on mountain bikers to do the work in an environmentally responsible manner?

    Who is watching and keeping track?

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    1. It’s under the leadership of a certain cadre of BLM leaders who have shown little real leadership or expertise in protecting the environment or even being truthful about their actions…answer your questions?

      Like

  2. This means then that the United States government is unwilling and incapable of following its own laws, and it is up to the public to force them to manage public lands by law. Since the public is held hostage to corporate control of media and information, and shackled to an authoritarian, domineering economic system, the people have not the expertise nor the means to fight the government in the courts.

    As always, the non-human world is left out, with no one to speak for non-human species and the habitat that sustains them … and us.

    Fortunately, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Herbert Stein.

    Like

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