Federal officials have warned road builders that they must abandon or overhaul the Foothill Transportation Corridor proposal because it poses an extreme threat to a federally protected rare bird and other wildlife in southern Orange County and northern San Diego County.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has the authority to block any project that threatens an endangered species. In this case, the preferred route for the southern leg of the Foothill Transportation Corridor cuts through the habitat of the least Bell’s vireos, an endangered songbird that inhabits an area of Camp Pendleton Marine Base.
“The birds were nesting right smack dab in the middle of the (proposed toll road) alignment last summer,” said Loren Hays, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s regional office in Laguna Niguel.
Vireos migrate from Baja California in the spring to breed. They once were found throughout the West Coast, but only about 400 pairs remain in the United States because more than 90% of their habitat has been destroyed.
The toll road agency has two proposed routes for the southern section of the eight-lane, $746-million highway, which would stretch 15 miles from Oso Parkway to Interstate 5. One cuts through San Clemente, and one, identified in the environmental report as the preferred route, cuts through wilderness areas of southeastern Orange County and Camp Pendleton.
Neither route is acceptable because the effects on wildlife are “significant and substantial . . . and have not been and cannot be sufficiently mitigated,” Fish and Wildlife Service officials said in their October report to the toll road planners.
Besides the vireos, they said, a large number of animals and plants would be harmed by the tollway, including the California gnatcatcher, a rapidly vanishing bird that is expected to be added soon to the endangered species list.
“Because of the extraordinary impacts . . . the service can endorse or recommend only the no-project alternative,” the wildlife agency wrote.
Officials with the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which is planning the Foothill highway and two other toll roads in Orange County, said they believe that they can resolve the federal agency’s concerns without abandoning their proposed routes.
“There are often endangered species involved in development projects, and you have to enter an agreement on how you will mitigate the impact,” said Steve Letterly, manager of environmental impact for the Transportation Corridor Agencies. “But that does not mean they will block the project.”
Like the builders of any project that will damage an endangered species, the TCA must obtain a special permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service. The process may be complicated by the fact that federal land is involved, which requires even more mitigation than private land.
To obtain the permits, officials will have to convince federal biologists that adequate measures will be taken to mitigate damage to the endangered birds.
Hays said a series of actions probably will be necessary, including rerouting of the road, creation of new habitat nearby and protection of the birds from noise, predators and human intrusion.
“It doesn’t necessarily put up a stone wall that stops the project,” Hays said. “But we must ensure the species is not taken or that appropriate mitigation occurs.”
Slight changes in the Foothill tollway’s route might not be enough because freeway noise could still threaten the vireos, he said.
Studies have shown that noise levels over 60 decibels have harmed vireos by causing stress and reducing their ability to communicate with their mates and young. Unless the road planners find a way to reduce the noise, the toll road could violate federal wildlife law, Hays said.
Even if the vireos are protected, the routes would have to avoid other species too.
“It’s possible, by adjusting the alignment, that particular problem (the vireos) may be resolved. But there are other problems--one being the possible future listing of the gnatcatcher,” Hays said.
The federal officials criticized the toll road planner’s environmental report as inadequate and misleading, saying it contained major errors and misrepresentations about wildlife in the area.
One of the biggest failings, they said, was that it did not report any endangered species in the project’s path even though the vireos have been documented there “during most if not all of the years between 1980 and the present.”
The report also failed to adequately address the impact on gnatcatchers and officials did not conduct field surveys for at least three other endangered species--the peregrine falcon, the kangaroo rat and a species of pocket mouse, according to the agency’s biologists.
The toll road planners said they are conducting more surveys to include in the environmental impact report. “Our surveys have shown there aren’t any (endangered species) in the area. Since they disagree with that, we are doing additional surveys in preparation for the April hearing to address their concerns,” Letterly said.
The environmental impact report comes up for a final vote by the Transportation Corridor Agencies on April 11. After that, the agency must conduct a separate environmental statement required by federal law that will take at least a year.
In all, the permit process could take several years. Tollway officials hope to break ground on the project in 1996.
Wildlife biologists say the Foothill toll road threatens more than just the fate of the rare birds; it endangers entire ecosystems that already have nearly vanished from Southern California.
With its expanse of creeks, woodlands and brush-lined canyons, the land involved, between Mission Viejo and Camp Pendleton, is one of the last remaining wilderness areas in Orange County and northern San Diego County.
The state Fish and Game Department and local biologists have joined the federal agency in warning that the toll road would have a disastrous effect on deer, mountain lions, hawks, coyotes and other native animals by causing large losses of coastal sage scrub and other terrain that supports them.
The state agency advised the toll road planners to abandon the idea and build an elevated mass-transit system instead, which would have less impact on wildlife and induce less development along its path than a toll road would.
Wildlife officials aren’t the only people opposing the road.
The U.S. Marine Corps said in an October letter that it is opposed to any route through the base and is “vitally concerned” about the effect on military operations and security, the base’s natural resources and an aquifer that supplies drinking water.
San Clemente officials also have been vocal opponents because the proposed routes, especially the one that cuts through the city, would be disruptive to the area’s small-town atmosphere.
“We’re working with the Marine Corps and city of San Clemente together to see if there is an alignment which they can concur with,” Letterly said.