Wildlife conservation

Surpassing Sustainability? Natural Areas Visitor Use in Northern Santa Cruz County

The Situation

Our community has done a relatively good job of preserving nature and building a tourist economy, but with no end in sight to development pressure and wild lands feeling the pinch we as a community have nature tourism sustainability issues it’s up to us to face and manage. In the current configuration around 20% of Santa Cruz County has been set aside as parks, most of that managed by State Parks but with many other locations falling under the purview of a patchwork of public and private managers. This extensive park system allows us to enjoy diverse and healthy wildlife populations, increased property values, recreational open space, and clean ground & surface water that can only flow from unpolluted drainages. The 8+ million tourists that visit Santa Cruz County each year are a substantial driver of the economy –bringing jobs and tax revenue to our community– and yet, each of the 3 realms of sustainability – social, economic, and environmental – are already facing unprecedented strain, with even greater challenges clearly identifiable in the very near future. There is an urgent need for action.

Socially, both parks users and parks neighbors are facing a crisis of expectations. Visitors do not find the amenities they expect of open space areas; instead they find few restrooms, no interpretation, degraded and dangerous trails, and parks in a humiliating state of neglect. As neighbors with a long-timer’s perspective our experience of the natural areas around us is quickly changing with jammed parking areas, increased motor vehicle traffic, more users of more types, and the inevitable trash, graffiti, emergency response, and noise issues becoming more frequent and more intense. Longtime residents, where able, increasingly adjust their lives to avoid interactions with crowded tourist weekends. Those who live adjacent to public open spaces are more frequently picking up trash and calling law enforcement or for emergency response assistance. The impacts on our community are random and incur real costs, all the while being totally preventable.

Economically, we don’t have a good understanding of costs and benefits of open space users on our local economy. Certainly, many businesses embrace maximizing tourism to improve their profits. But, the tax revenue that nature tourism brings doesn’t seem to be enough to maintain our vehicle access & amenities at parks and hasn’t increased either trash or restroom services. We grimly consider how many more tourism-related accidents our emergency services can accommodate before negatively impacting response time for residents. Parks budgets have not kept up with the increased demand for interpretation, enforcement, trail management, or stewardship activities; local tourist taxes have for the most part not been allocated to our community’s natural attractions, and parks entrance fees are vastly insufficient in the rare cases that they are collected at all.   

Ecologically, our area is rich with globally-significant treasures all of which are threatened by increased use. Our rich predator community — understood by biologists to be a key indicator of ecological health– is only holding its own because we have at times been careful to maintain areas with fewer human impacts. Mountain lions, badger, ringtail, bobcat, coyote, and fox all are important to the ecology of our natural areas and each species requires careful planning to ensure sufficient habitat and that human use of those habitats does not disrupt them. Increased visitation also threatens our rare and endangered birds, fish, and amphibians through poaching; introductions of weeds and disease; as well as mere regular behavioral disruption.

Solutions

How do we create a more sustainable future for natural areas visitation in Northern Santa Cruz County? First and foremost, there must be a more comprehensive natural areas visitation plan across the landscape. Such a plan would address all of the social, economic, and ecological issues raised above. Currently, there are 11 entities operating in various levels of natural areas management isolation. Each time one of those entities proposes a new public access plan, there would be benefit from a more holistic analysis and plan for regional visitor use sustainability.

In addition, and in the meanwhile, there are two other important elements to create a more sustainable public access program: scientific rigor and public accountability. Public access managers are not able to adapt their management to social, economic, or ecological thresholds without good data; without good data, much will be lost. And, without a means for the public to hold them accountable, public access managers will be unable to comply with their civic agreements. Both of these elements require advocates strong enough to allow public access managers to reduce use as necessary and until data exist to support any level of access. Public engagement in natural areas management will be fostered through regular public reporting including convening of community meetings where there is evidence of both the standing of and responsiveness to our community.

My Comments – Draft San Vicente Redwoods Public Access Plan

As the deadline for public comment approaches, I am sharing my comments on the San Vicente Redwoods Public Access Plan. The conservation partners that oversee and manage the property are a great group of organizations, but Santa Cruz County, as Lead Agency, needs some public support in helping this plan to protect the precious property for wildlife and clean water for future generations.

As we can see from the massive erosion, trash, ad hoc trail creation, and homeless trespass issues on parks around Santa Cruz, it is not easy to manage natural areas once they become open to the public.  Here, we have private organizations, together for the first time, attempting to open thousands of acres for public recreation. It will be difficult enough for these organizations to raise the funding to support the management of these uses, but add on top of that the monitoring required by this plan and one wonders how this can succeed.

If you join me in commenting on this plan, please be sure to urge the County to make all of the mitigation reporting available to the public, so together we can learn how this experiment both provides for public access while protecting our North Coast streams and wildlife.

Click here for the County’s environmental review document.

Click here for the Public Access Plan.

My comments:

Coastal Act Questions

  • What portion of the proposed project is in the State-designated Coastal Zone?
  • What portion of proposed recreational trail use would take place in Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas (ESHA), which are protected by Coastal Commission policy?
    • How has the project proponent consulted with the Coastal Commission about ESHA concerns?
  • What aspects of recreational trail use are permissible in ESHA?
    • To what degree must trails be redesigned to transform them from recreational to interpretive trails to meet the requirements of trail development through ESHA?

Mitigation Measures and Public Reporting Questions

The approval process relies on a CEQA process of Mitigated Negative Declaration, requiring mitigation measures to be enacted and ongoing monitoring and maintenance to reduce certain impacts to below certain thresholds.

  • What are the specific baseline versus thresholds of significance for the all of the potential impacts that require mitigation to bring the proposed project impacts to a level of “less than significant?”
  • To what degree does the Initial Study rely on the “Construction Protocols” (Plan, p. 7-25) included in the Access Plan in order to determine that a CEQA Mitigated Negative Declaration is sufficient for environmental review and approval? Which Protocols are omitted from the Plan in the Initial Study, and why?
  • To what degree does the Initial Study rely on the “Trail Maintenance Guidelines” (Plan, p. 7-38) included in the Access Plan in order to determine that a CEQA Mitigated Negative Declaration is sufficient for environmental review and approval? Which Guidelines are omitted from the Plan in the Initial Study, and why?
  • To what degree does the Initial Study rely on the “adaptive management strategies” (Initial Study, p. 58) included in the Access Plan in order to determine that a CEQA Mitigated Negative Declaration is sufficient for environmental review and approval? Which specific strategies from the Plan are omitted as specific mitigations in the Initial Study, and why?
  • How will the public be informed about the implementation and monitoring of all of the mitigation measures that made it possible to rely on a Mitigated Negative Declaration process/approval, including success of the adaptive management strategies, construction protocols and trail maintenance guidelines?
    • Will the Lead Agency require regular reporting?
      • If so, in the absence of quantitative thresholds to monitor, how will the project proponent know what must be included in those reports?
      • Why has the public not been informed about these reporting requirements during this public review process?

Enforcement Questions

The Plan and Initial Study seem to rely on policies and regulations with some education and signage to reduce the impacts of the extensive new recreational uses of this property. And yet, there is no clear dedication to enforcement mentioned.

  • What evidence does the Lead Agency cite to support that non-enforcement-based approaches work to deter uninvited recreational uses such as with this project?
  • To what extent are the Project Proponents dedicated to legal enforcement of the recreational use policies associated with the Plan?
    • What specific County, State, or Federal laws/regulations/codes would the Project Proponents use to enforce use restrictions on the property?
      • To what extent are law enforcement personnel dedicated to assuring prosecution of those laws?
      • To what extent is the District Attorney’s office dedicated to assuring prosecution of those laws?
    • What evidence does the Lead Agency or Project Proponents cite for the ratio of trail users who abide by restrictions versus those who do not in natural areas in the region?
      • What level of effort do the Project Proponents believe will be necessary to control use to designated trails?
      • How will the public access the statistics related to enforcement activities on the property?

Conservation Easement-Project Purpose Questions

The document informs the public of seemingly contradictory directions of the conservation easement: “…allowing for public access is a requirement of the Conservation Easement that protects the property. (Plan, p. 1-3; Initial Study p. 12) versusThe Conservation Easement gives the SRL the right to allow public access. (p. 1-5)

Questions:

  • In what ways has legal counsel determined that it is a requirement that the owners provide public access on the property?
  • How does the cited easement language giving the property owner the ‘right to allow public access’ correlate with the requirement for public access?
  • How important was it to the Lead Agency review that the conservation easement may require versus allow public access?
  • What communications from the Easement holders including their legal counsel(s) indicate the degree to which public access must be allowed?

“The Public Access Plan includes a Recreational Access Plan and a Research and Education Access Plan, though the focus of the Public Access Plan is recreational access and regional trail connections. While all research and educational activities are not necessarily open to the public, they are included as part of the Public Access Plan because of the education potential and because research and education will be supported by the same trails and access features required for recreational access. Research access will be managed by the owners, while educational and special use will be managed by the Land Trust.”

The Initial Study says The purpose of the proposed San Vicente Redwoods Public Access Plan is to identify the short-and long-term vision and tools to initiate and maintain public access for at least 10 years.” (Initial Study p. 12)

  • How was the level of public access determined?
  • Why was the level of public access not included in the CEQA project purpose statement?
  • How does the project proponent distinguish between public access and private access uses of the property?
  • How does the project proponent foresee the ratio of public access versus private access uses of the property over the course of the 10-year project timeframe?
  • To what extent have public entities or private funding agencies mandated public access as part of their funding obligations?
    • If so, to what extent have these funding obligations informed the project purpose?

Public Outreach and Engagement Questions

Extensive activities are outlined in the Plan and Initial Study including the types of attendees, but not the issues raised. Of the many activities, the document states that only the input from the community meetings was used to revise the Plan.

  • Why did the Plan authors spend so much time and money on public outreach and engagement?
  • In what ways did feedback from the community meetings affect the content and direction of the Plan?
  • Why wasn’t input from the other extensive public outreach and engagement activities used to revise the Plan?
  • How did the Plan authors apply social science tools to analyze and summarize the public input into the planning process?

Trail Planning Questions

“RECREATION 4.1 Designate a Skyline-to-Sea Trail corridor through San Vicente Redwoods, extending from Empire Grade to the Cotoni-Coast Dairies property.” (Plan, p 3-4)

Questions

  • How was it determined that regional trail connections are a priority for the property?
    • What percentage of recreational needs will be met by this priority?
      • How was this determined?
    • What socio-economic demographic is most likely to be served by such a priority?
      • How was this determined?
    • How was it determined that a Skyine-to-Sea Trail corridor should be a priority for the property?
      • What percentage of recreational needs will be met by this priority?
        • How was this determined?
      • What socio-economic demographic is most likely to be served by such a priority?
        • How was this determined?

Trail planning for the Laguna tract has been conducted in coordination with CDFW…” (Initial Study, p. 28)

Questions:

  • Has the CDFW approved through trail use by the project proponents?
  • What level of environmental review has CDFW undertaken in order to allow the current trail access, which would be less than the additional proposed access?
  • How does CDFW have the authority to permit uses for the next 10 years on an Ecological Reserve without an approved management plan?
  • Has the Coastal Commission previously communicated to CDFW about visitor use at the Ecological Reserve in the absence of an approved management plan?
  • Would the target group for the Laguna Parcel trail – recreational trail users – be impacting Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas at the Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve?
  • How is the trail system at the Ecological Reserve, and, by extension into the Laguna Parcel, an interpretive trail versus a recreational trail?

Alternatives Analysis Questions

Allowed Uses;

“Hiking, Bike Riding, Horseback Riding, and Dog Walking: These uses result in similar effects in regard to trail erosion, in that trail design and maintenance have a greater effect on erosion than the type of use.” (Initial Study, p. 16)

  • How has the Lead Agency determined that these trail uses have comparable effects on trail erosion potential?
    • What scientific evidence supports such a claim?

“These four uses also have been found to have similar impacts on wildlife.”

  • How has the Lead Agency determined that these trail uses have comparable effects on wildlife disturbance potential?
    • What scientific evidence supports such a claim?
    • How can the public understand the proposed project impacts when there is also a contradictory statement quoted in the Study from the Santa Cruz Puma Group “dog walking is understood to deter use of the area by medium and large mammals for sensitive life stage activities such as breeding and denning.”

Education Questions

“EDUCATION 2.1 Encourage research projects that will inform management of public access, such as studies that monitor environmental impacts of visitors on the reserves.” (Plan, p. 3-5)

  • Why do the project proponents limit the research to that which informs management of public access?

Biological Impacts Questions

“D. BIOLOGICAL RESOURCES; Would the project: 4. Interfere substantially with the movement of any native resident or migratory fish or wildlife species or migratory wildlife corridors, or impede the use of native wildlife nursery sites? (Initial Study, p. 59)

The Plan (p.) notes that dog walking would have a substantive adverse effect on cougar nursery sites. The Initial Study appears to rely on Plan components as mitigations without listing them as such, including:

  • property will be closed at night providing wildlife an opportunity to move through public access areas”
  • the adaptive management strategies of the proposed San Vicente Redwoods Public Access Plan

“Construction Protocol BR-1.8. Where wetlands or streams cannot be avoided, appropriate approvals from the USACE (for impacts to regulated wetlands or areas below the ordinary high water mark of regulated streams) and/or the RWQCB and the CDFW (for impacts to regulated wetlands, riparian vegetation, or areas below the top of bank of regulated streams) shall be secured prior to initiating work in these areas. The measures included in any such authorizations shall be incorporated into the design.” (Initial Study, p. 56)

  • Are wetlands considered ESHA by the Coastal Commission?
  • What kind of consultation and permitting is possible or will be required to develop recreational trails in wetlands according to Coastal Commission policy?
  • How many linear feet and acres of trail or other access infrastructure, including the proposed parking lot, will pass through Coastal Commission (“1 parameter”) ESHA wetland?

Public Services Questions

  1. PUBLIC SERVICES

“Would the project: Would the project result in substantial adverse physical impacts associated with the provision of new or physically altered governmental facilities, need for new or physically altered governmental facilities, the construction of which could cause significant environmental impacts, in order to maintain acceptable service ratios, response times, or other performance objectives for any of the public services?”  (Initial Study, p. 88).

“Policy Access 2.3. Work with partners to ensure adequate provision of emergency services.”

  • What data does the Lead Agency rely on to establish no potential significant impacts under this section?
    • How has the Lead Agency been informed of the baseline requirements of local agencies in police or fire agency responses to emergencies associated with recreational trail use?
  • Does the Lead Agency rely on the policies listed in this section as mitigations?
  • What is the baseline government facility capacity in the service area?
    • How has the Lead Agency determined that the additional recreational use will not require additional government facilities?

 

Recreation Impacts Questions 

  1. Recreation

“Would the project increase the use of existing neighborhood and regional parks or other recreational facilities such that substantial physical deterioration of the facility would occur or be accelerated?” (Initial Study, p. 89)

The Initial Study fails to mention of the Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve and the Cotoni Coast Dairies properties in this analysis.

  • What is the baseline state of trail use including physical deterioration of trails at the Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve?
  • How has the Lead Agency determined that additional use of the Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve would not substantively deteriorate the trails on this sensitive and highly erosive area?
    • What are the specific thresholds of significance applied in this case?
  • How have the project proponents assured that their negotiations and plans are not ‘pre-dispositional’ to federal decision making processes for the Cotoni Coast Dairies property?
  • How do the project proponents envision allowing adjacent natural areas managers to control the level of use on their lands with the trails at the Laguna tract and Skyline-to-Sea?
    • How will the project proponents cooperatively manage for the recreational, social, and biological carrying capacities of these adjacent lands?
    • How might the project proponents attempt to influence future managers who might consider closing the through trails on their lands, therefore affecting the use of the proposed project?
  • What would be the baseline state of adjacent trail use without the Skyline-to-Sea proposed plan component on the Cotoni Coast Dairies property?
  • How has the Lead Agency determined that additional use of the Skyline-to-Sea proposed plan component on the Cotoni Coast Dairies property would not substantively deteriorate the trails on that area?
    • What are the specific thresholds of significance applied in this case?

 

Other Questions 

  1. MANDATORY FINDINGS OF SIGNIFICANCE

“2. Does the project have impacts that are individually limited, but cumulatively considerable? (“cumulatively considerable” means that the incremental effects of a project are considerable when viewed in connection with the effects of past projects, the effects of other current projects, and the effects of probable future projects)?”  (Initial Study, p. 102).

The Initial Study fails to list any connection of increased recreational use with other current and emerging future projects with which some of the project proponents are involved, such as Cotoni Coast Dairies, Cement Plant Reuse, the Rail Trail, Wilder Ranch, County Beaches, etc. In order to effectively establish cumulative impacts analysis, one must first establish a baseline and then analyze expected increases during the timeframe of the project.

Questions:

  • Why does the traffic impact analysis only examine effects of Empire Grade, when significant increased use is anticipated by the ‘Skyline-to-Sea’ aspect of the proposal, hence affecting Highway 1 traffic?
    • What are the cumulative impacts of the proposed project which will coincide with increased Highway 1 traffic
  • State Parks has calculated use of its North Coast parks, why were these data not presented to the public to establish a recreational use baseline?
  • What is the current recreational use (# users) baseline for Wilder Ranch State Park?
  • What is the current recreational use (# users) baseline for County beaches in the vicinity of the proposed project alternatives?
  • What is the current recreational use (# users) baseline for Davenport Beach, where users share a parking lot that will also serve the Skyline-to-Sea proposed trail?
  • What is the current recreational use baseline (# users) for bicyclists using the Highway 1 corridor adjacent to the proposed project alternatives, including major bicycling events?
  • What % increase is projected over what is currently experienced in the vicinity of the proposed project alternatives?
  • What are thresholds of significance for cumulative effects for additional recreational users presented by this project, including on:
    • Parking in areas in the vicinity of the Skyline-to-Sea trailhead on Swanton Road
  • What are the cumulative effects of this proposed project on wildlife, especially migratory and nursery behaviors, when taken into consideration with:
    • Forestry activities on the property
    • Stewardship activities on the property
    • Non-public use of the property

 

 

 

Killing Santa Cruz’ Greenbelt

Fellow citizens of Santa Cruz, we have done so much good for the environment. We are transforming our city into a bicycling mecca, and our entire region will soon be powered by mostly renewable energy. Hundreds of volunteers work hard to keep our many beautiful beaches accessible and clean. We recycle and conserve water at unprecedented rates. Our culture strongly supports organic agriculture, and we purchase local and organic foods at a plethora of organic grocers and farmers markets every day of the week. And, we have supported leaders who found the funding and partners to protect thousands of acres of parks and open space across our lovely hills.

So why is our community welcoming the destruction of the City of Santa Cruz’ greenbelt?

The City’s Greenbelt has been a great environmental accomplishment. For a while, our City was circled by open space, and we nearly connected the pieces – from Natural Bridges State Beach to Antonelli Pond up to the Moore Creek Preserve and onto UCSC’s meadows, across Pogonip, down into Henry Cowell and Sycamore Grove, up onto De La Veaga Park, and down the creek to Arana Gulch and the Harbor. We worked well together to make that happen. Different people had different goals for supporting our Greenbelt: improving property values, protecting water quality, preserving nice views, protecting wildlife, creating recreational opportunities, limiting urban sprawl, and giving our children natural places to learn and grow.

Setting the land aside has been the easiest part of reaching our greenbelt goals. But, the greenbelt is relatively new – it is in its infancy – and Santa Cruzans are proving poor stewards.

Neighbors complain that greenbelt areas are messy homeless encampments, harboring unsavory elements and even criminals. Trail erosion, pavement, fires, and trash in greenbelts pollute our streams. The pleasant views of the greenbelt are being transformed though crowds of users, buildings, recreational infrastructure- fences, roads, signs, and parking lots- all of which is destroying wildlife habitat and scaring away what critters are left. For those who would enjoy the parks, planners with little capacity are trying to provide for all types of recreation, assuring degradation of the quality of all recreational experiences. The greatest number of those who would use the greenbelt for generations to come are those seeking peaceful, passive, family recreation. That potential is rapidly disappearing – our children’s children will have to travel further from home to enjoy quiet nature experiences, healthy wildlife, or clear-running streams.

How did the Greenbelt end up in this mess?

Organizational and individual leadership and capacity has been lacking to preserve and steward the Santa Cruz Greenbelt. The agency responsible for oversight of the greenbelt is the City of Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Department; its mission is ‘to provide the best facilities, recreational cultural and parks programs.’ The agency is understaffed and mostly focused on safety, aesthetics, and maximizing recreational development. Greenbelt conservation then falls to nonprofit advocates- friends groups and larger environmental organizations. Pogonip Watch and Friends of Arana Gulch are important. Volunteers with the California Native Plant Society work hard to raise funds, educate our community, pull invasive species, and are focused on a few mostly long-term conservation issues. But, they can’t do enough. The local chapter of the Sierra Club has had difficulty addressing much local nature conservation as well, and greenbelt issues have divided the group.

Meanwhile, well-funded and organized special interest groups are succeeding in transforming the greenbelt to benefit a small fraction of our community. A passionate bicycle transportation community along with lucrative mountain bicycle businesses are succeeding in carving up the greenbelt, criss-crossing it with high-speed recreation and transportation corridors. Organizations hoping to make some small improvements with homelessness issues are converting 9 acres of Pogonip’s wildlife habitats to agriculture; they hope also to have a permanent homeless encampment there, as well. Sports enthusiasts are working to transform still more of Pogonip to ballfields.

These special interests join the City of Santa Cruz and most other regional leaders who seem to believe that more is better when it comes to extractive use of natural areas, including the Greenbelt. Here are three bars of their collective public relations tune:

  • The greenbelt works best when it serves the maximum number of people and types of uses.
  • Legitimate use of the greenbelt drives away unsavory use.
  • If we don’t maximize use of the greenbelt, people will stop caring about preserving nature.

These three statements are false.

We need to support organizations and leaders that will expose these falsehoods and work to preserve the greenbelt for future generations.

To solidify our commitment to a greenbelt that supports wildlife, clean water, and passive recreational enjoyment, our greenbelt areas need to be protected by conservation easements enforced by third party organizations. Only then can our greenbelt be protected from the special interest groups which will inevitably garner political support until nothing is left.

 

The Monument-Worthy Birds of Cotoni-Coast Dairies: An Analysis

Introduction and Background

Obama’s Proclamation giving National Monument status to Cotoni Coast Dairies included protection for an interesting list of birds: a challenge or a nose-thumbing to preservationists? We don’t know, but in this essay I present both perspectives. First, a reminder that experts presented the President with a science-based white paper suggesting a list of sensitive natural resources worthy of protection by his Proclamation; most local conservation organizations wrote letters supporting this proposal. The white paper included 7 species of birds that are protected by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, but not protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA)…and so, without mention in the Monument Proclamation, might not be protected on BLM lands:

  • American peregrine falcon –  Falco peregrinus anatum– CA fully protected
  • Bryant’s savannah sparrow – Passerculus sandwichensis alaudinus – CA Species of Special Concern
  • Ferruginous hawk – Buteo regalis – California Watch List (wintering)
  • Grasshopper sparrow – Ammodramus savannarum – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Northern harrier – Circus cyaneus – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Olive-sided flycatcher-Contopus cooperi – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Short-eared owl –Asio flammeus – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Tricolored blackbird – Agelaius tricolor – CA Threatened
  •  White-tailed kite – Elanus leucurus – CA Fully Protected (nesting)

The white paper also included recommendation for recognition of species that are federally protected as long as they are on California BLM’s sensitive animal list:

  • Burrowing owl – Athene cunicularia – BLM CA sensitive animal; CA Species of Special Concern
  • Golden eagle – Aquila chrysaetos – BLM CA sensitive animal; CA fully protected

And, experts mentioned two other notable bird species that frequent the property:

  • Red-tailed hawk – Buteo jamaicensis – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Short-eared owl – Asio flammeus – IUCN Status: Least Concern

At first glance… the Proclamation was a moderate success for bird conservation- experts proposed 11 bird species for the Proclamation, and the President’s Proclamation included 9 bird species. But, the Proclamation included just two of the species experts proposed: the white tailed kite and peregrine falcon. Besides the kite and falcon, the other species listed by the President are common and widespread enough to not warrant any conservation concern. Here are the other 7 birds listed in the President’s proclamation, along with their listing status:

  • American kestrel – Falco sparverius – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Black swift – Cypseloides niger – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Cooper’s hawk – Accipiter cooperii- IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Downy woodpecker – Picoides pubescens – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Orange-crowned warbler – Oreothlypis celata – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Tree swallow – Tachycineta bicolor – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Wilson’s warbler – Cardellina pusilla – IUCN Status: Least Concern

Optimism: A Presidential Challenge?

An optimist might consider the list of birds in the President’s Proclamation could be seen as a challenge to biologists, preservationists, and BLM. The President might have been truly insightful, providing protection for species common enough across the property for scientifically sound analysis of the impacts of varying levels of future visitor use. Only when there are enough nesting attempts of a bird species can we compare nest success in areas with and without visitors, or between areas of varying visitor use types/intensities.

With all of the biota listed in the Proclamation, BLM is required to provide protections in their management plans, setting scientifically-based preservation targets, and monitoring the status of these resources over time. Establishing preservation targets for species will involve developing various hypotheses, such as:

  • What is a minimum viable population size?
  • How many individuals are necessary to maintain their ecological functions?
  • How many individuals are necessary in various parts of the property to ensure that the public has an opportunity to view them?

It is likely that at least some of these birds are common enough across the property right now, when the property is seeing very little visitor use, that experts can inventory their densities and then notice change over time in response to varying management decisions. This would not be the case with more uncommon species.

I should point out that this optimistic viewpoint is difficult to completely uphold because the President did not include the expert’s suggestion of olive-sided flycatcher in his Proclamation: this is a species common enough on the property to meet the criteria outlined above.

Pessimism: A Presidential Nose-Thumbing?

The pessimist might consider it a purposeful snub by the President when he ignored most of the birds recommended by experts for inclusion in the Proclamation. He might have various reasons for snubbing the experts.

For instance, in recent Santa Cruz County history, and with the Monument Campaign in particular, we have seen political leaders leveraging and emphasizing the divide between pro-access, maximum use, recreation advocates and conservation advocates. If the pro-access, maximum use advocates had leverage with the President, they may have advised that inclusion of the conservation community’s recommendations as something to ignore.

An additional and perhaps additive possibility is that the President’s advisers were opposed to preservation of grassland habitat on the property, possibly because of the near necessity of using livestock grazing to maintain that habitat. Despite a growing scientific consensus, some maintain that California’s coastal grasslands are largely ‘unnatural’ relicts of human management, evidenced by their ‘natural’ succession into mixed coniferous forests. And, while fire is sporadically used to maintain California’s coastal grasslands, livestock grazing is more common. Many of the bird species that experts recommended for inclusion are dependent on extensive grassland habitats; some may even require livestock grazing to maintain structure that is conducive to nesting success. The reader is no doubt cognizant of some of the environmental community’s opposition to livestock grazing on conservation lands, and this philosophy could well have been in play when advisers helped the President to draft his Proclamation. None of the birds included in the President’s Proclamation rely on grassland habitat.

A final additional and perhaps additive possibility is the Presidential adviser philosophy that the protection of grassland dependent birds might interfere with maximizing visitor use of the property. Grasslands on the property offer the easiest opportunities for access to the many visitors desiring expeditious photographic opportunities. And so, perhaps the President’s advisers refused protection of grassland birds in order to more readily allow for maximum visitor use.

Concluding Remarks

The future will help inform the prevalence of the optimistic or pessimistic interpretation of the President’s motivations for naming the Monument-worthy birds of Cotoni Coast Dairies in his Proclamation. With luck, we may be able to have conversations with the President’s Proclamation advisers to learn, first-hand their rationale. And, we may gather more clues in the advocacy of Monument Campaign organizers and others during the planning process for the property. We will share our discoveries to help science-based conservationists better engage with similar situations in the United States. And, we will use what we learn to improve our strategy moving forward with preserving the sensitive natural resources of Cotoni Coast Dairies.

Postscripts

  1.  One reviewer suggested an alternative possibility for the President’s advisers largely avoiding the experts’ list of sensitive bird species: the advisers may have not recognized the credibility or legitimacy of the source of information.
  2. Another reviewer pointed out the irony of the Proclamation recognition of indigenous peoples and yet the lack of inclusion of those peoples’ iconic birds: eagle and hummingbird.
  3. Bird experts point out that the President’s inclusion of American kestrel was cogent because of a regional decline in nesting, a phenomenon that isn’t explicable but warrants attention.
  4. Bird experts also point out that the President’s inclusion of black swift is curious because the species has never been known to nest on the property, and nesting areas anywhere nearby have long been abandoned.

Monument Proclamation for Cotoni-Coast Dairies Adds Significant Protections for Biota

The President’s Proclamation adding the Cotoni-Coast Dairies to the California Coastal National Monument has created protections for many biota, helping to guarantee a balanced approach between public access and preservation. The property’s managers, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), had previously demonstrated disregard for all but federally listed species of plants and animals, which are few on the property. The Proclamation now obligates BLM to manage for 24 species as well as 13 biotic communities that are not otherwise federally protected.  The Proclamation guarantees some public access for the property only after the completion of a management plan that is ‘consistent with the care and management’ of these resources.

The following non-federally protected species (24) probably would not have received attention by BLM had this Monument proclamation not included their mention:

  • Wilson’s warbler
  • Orange-crowned warbler
  • Downy woodpecker
  • Black swift
  • Tree swallow
  • Cooper’s hawk
  • American kestrel
  • California vole
  • Dusky footed woodrat
  • Black-tailed jackrabbit
  • Gray fox
  • Bobcat
  • Mountain lion
  • Mule deer
  • California buttercup
  • Brown-headed rush
  • Redwood sorrel
  • Elk clover
  • Madrone
  • California bay
  • Monterey pine
  • Knobcone pine
  • Douglas fir
  • Coast live oak

 

The following biotic groups/communities (13) must now be protected and managed for by BLM:

  • California sagebrush
  • Coyote brush scrub
  • Amphibians and reptiles
  • Bats
  • Red alder forests
  • Arroyo willow forests
  • Riparian areas
  • Riparian corridors
  • Wetlands – in riparian areas as well as meadows and floodplains
  • Grasslands
  • Scrublands
  • Woodlands
  • Forests

The following federally listed species (4)were also mentioned in the Proclamation:

  • Tidewater goby
  • Steelhead
  • Coho salmon
  • California red-legged frog

The following species (2) are listed in the Proclamation and are also listed by BLM California as requiring protection on BLM lands. These species might not have been protected in perpetuity, though, as that BLM list changes with administrations.

  • White tailed kite
  • Townsend’s big-eared bat

Saving the Coastal Prairie on the Santa Cruz North Coast, Thanks to California State Parks Ecologists

On Tuesday, December 27th I hiked onto the Gray Whale section of Wilder Ranch to see the prairies where the smoke was coming from back in October. I first visited these meadows in the late 1980’s while the property was privately owned; cattle were grazing the meadows, and there were abundant native grasses and wildflowers. Santa Cruz preservationists fought hard to protect the property from a proposed housing development, it went to State Parks, which removed the cows and took many years to start managing the prairies, which were starting to disappear to weeds, shrubs, and trees. Luckily, things were to change…

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Postburn strikingly green meadows.

This past October, I knew that big plume of smoke I saw while driving on Highway 1 meant that State Parks was continuing their work at maintaining the meadows that I love so much. Fellow ecologist Jacob Pollock and I hiked from Twin Gates on Empire Grade down the Long Meadow ‘trail’ and into the strikingly bright green resprouting native grasses and wildflowers growing from the charcoal blackened ground. We found many types of native grass and a few wildflowers in the burned areas. Purple needlegrass, California’s State Grass, dominated the burned area, its dark green, rough leaves now 6” long and ubiquitous- a plant every square foot! These bunchgrasses promise a beautiful spring of silvery-purple flowers swaying 2’ high in the breeze. Patches of California oatgrass were less plentiful in the burn area than in the adjoining unburned area. This is the wet meadow loving indicator species of coastal prairie, and, in the many years after grazing and before the fires, it’s bunches grew taller to get to the sun- these tall bunches are susceptible to fire, but some survive.

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Fire recovery of California oatgrass

Patches of the leaves of wildflowers dotted the meadow and promise much more in the months ahead. Most abundant were sun cups, purple sanicle, and soap plant all long-lived perennials with nice flowers. Sun cups will be the earliest to bloom, maybe as early as late February, with simple, 4-petaled yellow flowers. Purple sanicle will be next to bloom in earl April with it’s small, purple spherical clusters of flowers. Soap plant blooms in late spring with evening blooming, white flowers that attract a variety of bumblebees.

Besides the obvious revitalization of the meadow plants, we marveled at other aspects of the handiwork of State Parks’ expert ecologist land stewards. Unlike many of our area’s meadows, there wasn’t a single French broom plant, a super-invasive non-native shrub that obliterates meadows, overruns trails, and is a major fire hazard. A many year program with State Parks partnering with volunteer groups has controlled that and other weed species at the park. We also saw dead coyote brush both in and out of the burn area- this native shrub can completely overrun meadows, closing bush-to-bush canopy in 15 to 35 years, depending on the soil. State Parks killed the coyote bush to maintain the prairie, and then burned the skeletons of the bushes so that there are now wide opened expanses of meadows, which are attractive to hawks, owls, coyotes, bobcats, and prairie-loving songbirds like meadowlarks. The ecologists also sent the fire into the adjoining and invading forests, maintaining the sinuous coast live oak ecotone that so beautifully frames the meadows.

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Fire maintains prairie ecotone

Today, I’m celebrating environmental heroes- 2-3 State Park Ecologists who manage over 18,000 acres in Santa Cruz County. They are motivated and hardworking. They need more support, more staff, more funding- please tell your State Assemblyperson/Senator! Without their dedication, our prairies would disappear. Thank you!

June 2017 Addendum: Portia Halbert sent me this photo (from State Parks Ecologist Tim Reilly), taken recently. The unburned portion of the coastal prairie in Long Meadow turns out this year to be dominated by Italian thistle, an invasive plant, whereas the fire from last fall seems to have more-or-less obliterated the species in the adjoining meadow. Thistles are especially bad this year in many meadows that haven’t been well stewarded. This discovery, that fire might help with thistle invasion, is a complete surprise to me- it deserves some careful scientific investigation! Long meadow italian thistle

Wildlife Protection at the Potential Cotoni Coast Dairies Monument- The Naysayers

Preservationists have done what they can to protect natural resources at the Cotoni Coast Dairies, should it become a National Monument- but, who didn’t support that work, and why?

The Proposal

Early in 2016, a broad coalition of experts and I drafted a proposal to add natural resource protection to any Presidential declaration of the Cotoni Coast Dairies National Monument. Expert wildlife biologists, amphibian and bird experts, plant community ecologists, and others co-created a list of sensitive species and rare ecosystems that would receive more protection under a Presidential Monument declaration, should that list be included. Sensitive natural resources at other presidentially declared Monuments in California have enjoyed such protections, so there is no reason such protections shouldn’t be in place at Cotoni Coast Dairies.

Questions: Who is writing the Presidential Proclamation that will give the Cotoni Coast Dairies National Monument status? Do they know about this proposal?

Answers: The staff at the Council on Environmental Quality, an office that advises the President. As of Fall 2016, they have our proposal, and we are hoping they will include it, in its entirety.

Supporting the Proposal…

The proposal enjoyed the public support of the following organizations:

The Trust for Public Land, which owned the Coast Dairies property before handing it to BLM, wrote an especially important support letter. Their letter emphasized the importance of including our proposal because it documented species and ecosystems that had been discovered since TPL wrote the legally-binding land management plan that would otherwise serve to protect the property under BLM ownership.

Not Supporting the Proposal…

Despite repeated requests, the following organizations refused to publicly support our sound, science-based proposal to increase protections of natural resources at the Cotoni Coast Dairies:

It is ironic that all of these organizations publicly supported the proposal to make the Cotoni Coast Dairies a National Monument. And, these are all expert conservation organizations. And so, these organizations must have been aware that BLM provides less protection to the natural resources listed in our proposal without those species being included in the Presidential Monument declaration.

The various written rationales for not supporting the proposal included (paraphrased):

  • ‘it would take too much time for our organization to analyze the issue’ (two organizations)
  • ‘our policies have changed since we signed on to support the proposed Monument, now we don’t do those types of things’(one organization)
  • ‘some influential people (elected officials/Monument advocates) wouldn’t like us as much if we supported the proposal- so, it’s not worth it’ (two organizations)

What Can You Do?

If you agree that future generations deserve to enjoy healthy wildlife and clean coastal streams….

And, if you agree in science-based, policy-smart solutions to make that happen…

  • When choosing to join or support in any way an environmental organization: choose from the list of those organizations that supported our proposal.
  • Even without such support, please let the organizations listed above know what you think. Click on the organization names above- I included links to their websites.