Public trust

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

 

 

 

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…

dsc_0156

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.

dsc_0162

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.

dsc_0148

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

Rare Biota of Santa Cruz County’s North Coast

By request…a list of the rare biota of Santa Cruz County’s North Coast. The sheer number of rare biota is both a gift and a challenge for us.

How many species do you need to live?

Plants

Federally or State protected plant species on Santa Cruz County’s North Coast
Common name

Status

Latin name Notes
Ben Lomond spineflower

Federally endangered

Chorizanthe pungens var. hartwegii Mostly on inland sands, but also on some shallow soils in the Major’s Creek drainage
San Francisco popcornflower

State endangered

Plagiobothrys diffusus Moist meadows

 

Santa Cruz cypress

Federally threatened

Hesperocyparis abramsiana Mostly on inland sands, but also recently found in the Scotts Creek watershed; outliers expected elsewhere
Santa Cruz wallflower

Federally endangered

Erysimum teretifolium On inland sands
Robust spineflower

Federally endangered

Chorizanthe robusta var. robusta
White-rayed Pentachaeta

Federally and State endangered

Pentachaeta bellidiflora

The following table uses California Rare Plant Ranks, as follow:

California Rare Plant Rank Description of rarity
1B Plants Rare, Threatened, or Endangered in California and Elsewhere

 

2B Plants Rare, Threatened, or Endangered in California, But More Common Elsewhere
3 Plants About Which More Information is Needed – A Review List

 

4 Plants of Limited Distribution – A Watch List

 

Biologically imperiled plant species on Santa Cruz County’s North Coast
Common name

Status

Latin name Notes
 
Ben Lomond buckwheat

CRPR 1B

Eriogonum nudum var. decurrens On inland sands
Bent-flowered fiddleneck

CRPR 1B

Amsinckia lunaris
Blasdale’s bent grass

CRPR 1B

Agrostis blasdalei
Bonny doon Manzanita

CRPR 1B

Arctostaphylos silvicola Mostly on inland sands
Brewer’s Calandrinia

CRPR 4

Calandrinia breweri
California bottlebrush grass

CRPR 4

Elymus californicus

 

Only a couple of populations in our county
California falselupine

CRPR 1B

Thermopsis macrophylla Coastal prairie
Choris’s popcorn flower

CRPR 1B

 

Plagiobothrys chorisianus var. chorisianus Moist meadows, scrub
Dylan’s leptosiphon Leptosiphon ‘dylanae’ An undescribed species only in Bonny Doon, possibly extinct in the wild
Gairdner’s yampah

CRPR 4

Perideridia gairdneri ssp. gairdneri Moist meadows
Harlequin lotus

CRPR 4

Hosackia gracilis Moist meadows
Hoffmann’s snakeroot

CRPR 4

Sanicula hoffmannii
Johnny nip

CRPR 4

Castilleja ambigua  ssp. ambigua Moist meadows
Large flowered star tulip

CRPR 4

Calochortus uniflorus Moist meadows
Marsh silverpuffs

CRPR 1B

Microseris paludosa Moist meadows
Marsh zigadenus

CRPR 4

Toxicoscordion fontanum Only one population known in our county
Michael’s rein orchid

CRPR 4

Piperia michaelii
Mt. diablo cottonweed

CRPR 3

Micropus amphibolus
Ohlone Manzanita

CRPR 1B

Arctostaphylos ohloneana Fewer than a few dozen plants exist
Pinus radiata

CRPR 1B

Monterey pine North Coast includes the Año Nuevo population one of a handful of wild stands; genetically distinct
Point Reyes horkelia

CRPR 1B

Horkelia marinensis Moist meadows
San francisco blue eyed mary

CRPR 1B

Collinsia multicolor Swanton area
San francisco campion

CRPR 1B

Silene verecunda subs. verecunda
San Francisco wallflower

CRPR 4

Erysimum franciscanum Coastal dunes
Santa cruz clover

CRPR 1B

Trifolium buckwestiorum
Santa Cruz County monkeyflower

CRPR 4

Mimulus rattanii  ssp. decurtatus
Santa Cruz Manzanita

CRPR 1B

Arctostaphylos andersonii  Shaded areas
Santa cruz microseris

CRPR 1B

Stebbinsoseris decipiens
Santa Cruz Mountains beardtongue

CRPR 1B

Penstemon rattanii  var. kleei
Schreiber’s Manzanita

CRPR 1B

Arctostaphylos glutinosa
Vanilla grass

CRPR 2

Hierochloe odorata Forest understory

Animals

Federally or State protected animal species on Santa Cruz County’s North Coast
Name

Status

Latin name Notes
American badger

State Species of Special Concern

Taxidea taxus
Bald eagle

State endangered

Haliaeetus leucocephalus
California red-legged frog

Federally threatened

Rana draytonii Breeds in ponds, but uses large areas for movement/summer refugia
Central Coast population

Coho Salmon

Federally endangered

State endangered

Oncorhynchus kisutch Returned for first time in years in 2015 to North Coast streams.
Central Coast population Steelhead Trout

Federally threatened

Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus
Golden eagle

State Fully Protected

Aquila chrysaetos
Grasshopper sparrow

State Species of Special Concern

Ammodramus savannarum
Mount Hermon June beetle

Federally endangered

Polyphylla barbata inland sands
Northern harrier

State Species of Special Concern

Circus cyaneus
Northern spotted owl

Federal candidate

Strix occidentalis caurina
Ohlone tiger beetle

Federally endangered

Cicindela ohlone
Peregrin falcon

Federally threatened

Falco peregrines

 

Ring tailed cat

State Fully Protected

Bassariscus astutus
San Francisco dusky-footed woodrat

State Species of Special Concern

Neotoma fuscipes annectens
Southwestern pond turtle

State Species of Special Concern

Actinemys marmorata pallida Bask in ponds, nest in adjoining grasslands

 

Tidewater goby

Federally endangered

Eucyclogobius newberryi In brackish lagoons
Tricolored blackbird

State Species of Special Concern

Agelaius tricolor Listing petition in process
Western burrowing owl

State Species of Special Concern

Athene cunicularia We have only wintering birds left- they nest inland.
White tailed kite

State Fully Protected

Elanus leucurus
Biologically imperiled animal species on Santa Cruz County’s North Coast

 

Common name Latin name Notes
Ben Lomond rain beetle  
Doloff’s cave spider Meta dolloff Caves
Empire amphipod Stygobromus mackenziei Caves
Empire isopod Calasellus n. sp Caves, undescribed
Empire pseudoscorpion Fissilicreagris imperialis Blind, cave adapted
Empire roothopper Cixius n. sp Caves, undescribed
Laguna cave cricket In one cave, only, undescribed
Puma

 

Puma concolor Not clear if Santa Cruz mountains population is viable in the long term
Santa Cruz black salamander Aneides flavipunctatus niger Only a very few observations
Santa Cruz kangaroo rat Dipodomys venustus venustus Only viable population potentially at Henry Cowell- extinct in Bonny Doon?
Santa Cruz pseudoscorpion Neochthonius imperialis Blind, cave adapted
Santa Cruz rain beetle Pleocoma conjugens conjugens

Habitats

Coastal Commission protected habitats – “Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas” (ESHA)

  • Coastal scrub/rocky outcrops
  • Coastal prairie
  • Wetlands
  • Shreve oak forests
  • Maritime chaparral
  • Riparian habitats

 

The privatization of open space – Land Trust vs. Public Trust

elephant pict

Licensed under CC: photo by flickr user hbp_pix All rights revert to originator.

 

Could the rise of the ‘Land Trust Movement’ represent a retrograde change in the way we protect land for future generations? We may be experiencing a shift is from public responsibility, funding, authority and accountability to private funding and private ownership of conservation lands. Private ownership by Land Trusts –even those incorporated as nonprofits– normally has limited public accountability and transparency. In consequence, the purpose and focus of land protection is in danger of shifting from ecologically sound conservation of plants and animals to the recreational and utilitarian desires of the moneyed elite.

 

At its best, the Land Trust Movement is the capital economy’s response to ongoing lack of public support for funding public land protection agencies. This attitude suggests that if you want protection for public lands you’re going to have to pay for it yourself. And, this view assumes that development and maximized use is a natural or desirable condition while protection from development and overuse is reduced to a ‘special interest’ – one that should be privately funded.

 

At its worst, the Land Trust Movement represents a shift toward a new feudalism, widening the gap between the rich and poor via appropriation and control of land once called the American commons. At the whim of wealthy donors, Land Trusts manage and control ecosystems according only to the vicissitudes of an elite few, without regard for or accountability to the people. In essence they transform management of natural areas into a commodity, excluding the views of the relevant sciences and the general public alike.

 

How is the public losing control? For nearly forty years, the well-worn phrase the problem with the government is…” has been bleeding into Liberal philosophy, poisoning the public’s faith in the protections offered by the government itself. Other oft heard phrases like “State Parks is corrupt,” “the State Wildlife Agency is inept,” “US Fish and Wildlife does what??” etc. are just different ways of saying the government –the people themselves according to our democratic way of government– doesn’t work. Instead of working with and trying to fix these public agencies, the elite turn their paternalistic worldview to Land Trusts for nature conservation, avoiding those who might disagree with their ‘enlightened view.’ Land Trust lands and sponsored activities often provide outdoor experiences to like-minded people –preferably wealthy and generous. Thus, Land Trusts create ‘nature-consumers’ – distant from nature but feeling a certain privileged ownership of it. Land Trusts and their donors assume a right to use –and through willful neglect degrade– what amount to private parks, under no obligation to protect them from human excesses or the ravages of harmful invasive species. Land Trust clients (a.k.a. donors) are largely derived from social elites:  white, upper class, and educated. These donors are at times granted undue influence over land acquisition and management, reducing the importance and influence of scientifically-based conservation and forcing Land Trusts to defer to a use-based approach because someone thinks a new mountain bike trail would be neat or owns a local ATV dealership. Land Trust development officers know that donor-clients are best courted with tangible results involving humans using the land, results that give them social status…that allow for good Facebook selfies: results that can be put in glossy brochures to show that humans with money in this country are free do as they please. To grow this constituency Land Trusts carefully construct messages resonant with this resource-hungry, profit-oriented culture. This uninformed version of ‘sustainable development’ guarantees the continued flow of wealth. ‘Open space’ purchased from ‘willing sellers’ guarantees that neighbors keep their property value (or preferably increase it).

 

When Private Land Trusts focus on short-term goals of preserving or expanding funding there is a major contrast with Ecological Conservation prioritizing and visualizing the health of the land over time, for today and generations to come. ‘The long view’ holds the health of the land in mind as a concept –let alone a thing of value– in the act of deciding whether to log a certain slope or dam a certain river. In the U.S,. on public land, nature ‘has a say’ in large-scale land use cases, the decision-making authority long having been vested in government. The sheer scale and complex fundraising structure of Land Trusts means at times they acquire ecosystem-defining control, and act without public recourse or long-term restraint in the installation of hiking/biking trails, buffer zones for residents, protecting private interests in timber, livestock, and farming. They expertly facilitate human use and activity, but may fail to consider the long-term ecological implications of their use plans. Nobody disputes that it is a social good to acquire land that might otherwise be degraded by condos, shopping malls, or such.  And, it is also good to get people out into nature. But it is possible to ‘love nature to death’: to tread so thoughtlessly, frequently, and heavily on the land in our pursuit of short-term aims that we change it fundamentally for the worse; that we make it no longer the treasured place it was. In most places, municipal land use planning and zoning hasn’t yet addressed the spectrum of differences between the poles of wildlife conservation and open space commoditization on the privately held lands that are crucial for the future of Life.

Public Land Management is the answer. Developing policy based on informed consensus is the method of accountable public institutions. Public institutions –those entrusted with the knowledge and organizational structure to make long-term decisions– are obliged to consider what is best for all citizens in their decisions. Private Land Trusts don’t deliver better conservation results than public land use institutions. Private Land Trusts have developed a certain expertise in generating positive PR even as they obscure their decision-making processes, rely on focus groups instead of sound science in the act of attenuating or refusing community input. Public land agencies have centuries of legal precedent, procedural and environmental know-how, and long-standing, forward-thinking, public-minded mandate. They are not as easily subject to behind-the-scenes deals and ecological equivocations in response to in donor whims. Public trust agencies must adhere to open processes and regulatory application of sound science to protect wildlife and public lands. They must balance short-term interests in recreation and sustainable development with long-term protection for the health of the land and future generations.

 

It’s a shame in our era of manufactured austerity –when tax cuts are showered on the well-to do while roads crumble, wars get financed, and back-room deals trump common sense– public land use agencies are starved of funding for the short-term illusion of a civil society done on the cheap. Dollars that flow towards privately-controlled Land Trusts should be re-directed towards making our democratic public land management agencies better and stronger. Parallel conservation organizations aren’t what’s missing. We need to invest in our shared public future: of ecologically sound conservation. It really matters to generations and generations of happier, healthier children and well-adjusted adults who feel at home in their world.

 

Special thanks to Wes Harman for input and editing.