State Places Faith in Voluntary Efforts : Gnatcatcher: Developers hail the conservation planning project, but environmentalists say there are serious drawbacks.
In urging the state Fish and Game Commission to deny the California gnatcatcher candidacy for endangered species status, the administration of Gov. Pete Wilson is placing great faith in its ability to persuade developers to voluntarily set aside land so that the bird will be ensured a foothold for survival.
Earlier this year, the Wilson Administration established a five-man scientific panel to study the gnatcatcher situation, and officials have been meeting periodically with landowners and local lawmakers to forge agreements to protect the bird’s habitat. There are fewer than 2,000 pairs of the birds in Orange, San Diego and Riverside counties.
A number of developers seem eager to take part in the state’s Natural Community Conservation Planning effort, which was conceived by close associates of Wilson at the Irvine Co. in Orange County.
But so far, only one development company, the Fieldstone Co. in San Diego County, has reached an agreement with state and federal wildlife officials to begin setting aside a place for the bird. Its habitat is a scruffy mix of grasses and brush known as coastal sage scrub. Fieldstone’s 2,800-acre development in Carlsbad contains 850 acres of the scrub.
Environmentalists and other champions of the tiny songbird say Wilson’s new approach has its merits but that it fails miserably to protect it in the short term. They predict that it will take two years or longer for the state’s conservation planning scheme to get under way.
“It’s a good idea that bears further investigation,” said Jonathan Atwood, a bird expert who has pushed for the gnatcatcher to be listed as endangered. “My biggest worry is how incredibly many unknowns there still are. This is not the sort of plan you’d want to hold your breath for.”
In the meantime, the bird could suffer. In just the past few weeks, landowners cleared scores of acres of the type of scrub that is the bird’s habitat.
A spokesman for Wilson, however, said the Fish and Game Commission did the right thing.
“We believe they made the right decision and that concerns about the gnatcatcher will be addressed in the larger discussions to create habitat areas that will protect numerous species,” Bill Livingstone said.
The genesis of Wilson’s new approach was at the Irvine Co. The firm, which boasts of several officials who are friends and former associates of the governor, began working quietly last spring to draw Wilson into the gnatcatcher controversy.
The effort paid off in April when Wilson unveiled a pilot program that would convene a scientific panel to study the situation. Meanwhile, officials began trying to get developers to set aside sage scrub for the gnatcatcher in an effort to short-circuit any need for an endangered-species listing.
Developers are openly fearful that such a designation would put uncertainty into their building plans by subjecting them to an additional layer of governmental review before they could go forward with efforts to erect houses on gnatcatcher habitat.
But in its early days, there was much controversy. Irvine Co. officials and other developers said they would willingly give up their land only if Atwood and others would drop any effort to have the gnatcatcher listed as endangered by both the state and federal governments.
When that tack failed, it remained unclear just how much stock the development community put in the Wilson plan.
Nevertheless, the Wilson administration used the conservation plan as its sole argument for keeping the bird off the endangered species list. During Friday’s session before the Fish and Game Commission, a top Wilson administration official declared that state wildlife officials should take an “emergency action” to list the gnatcatcher as endangered only if the voluntary program does not work.
“There is a new team in this state,” Michael A. Mantell, undersecretary of resources, told the commission. “This governor is committed to protection. . . . It is not nor will it be business as usual in the state of California.”
Afterward, Mantell said endangered species’ candidacy would have put too much emphasis on the gnatcatcher when the fact is that the state needs to work toward “a broader habitat focus” centering on the entire community of plants and animals that make up the coastal sage scrub ecosystem. The scrub is also home to more than 40 other species that may soon warrant endangered status.
“I think because we are committed and because people see concrete results, we’ll be able to end the polarization and the cycle of litigation,” Mantell said. He noted that state officials hope to introduce legislation next year to cement the conservation effort.
In the meantime, he said, state officials are working with landowners and local governments to prevent destruction of coastal sage scrub. If developers choose not to participate in the program, the state would make it “very hard for them to develop,” he said.
Developers were also pleased, but there was little unanimity as to what lies ahead.
Donald Steffensen, executive vice president of the Lusk Co., one of the nation’s largest builders, said the state should buy any large developable tracts of land it wants set aside as preserves for the bird.
“The bottom line is there is great desire to do it, but there isn’t much money,” he said.
Others suggested that the Wilson Administration is doing the right thing.
“I interpret the decision as a real step forward for environmental protection,” said Kevin Canning of Arvida Co., which is developing a 3,500-acre planned community in the sage scrub-dotted hills above San Clemente. “It will allow us to proceed with a long-range comprehensive plan to protect all species rather than the piecemeal approach of dealing with conservation critter by critter.”
Meanwhile, the chairman of the state’s five-man scientific panel said Friday’s decision caught him by “surprise.” He added that it is sure to increase pressure on the group to quickly map a plan for saving the gnatcatcher--a plan that is likely to make few developers or environmentalists happy.
Times staff writer Susan Christian contributed to this story.
The California Fish and Game Commission
State Fish and Game commissioners are selected by the governor, with appointments subject to confirmation by the Senate. The five-member board has one vacancy that Gov. Pete Wilson has not yet filled. Commissioner Frank D. Boren cast the lone vote to grant the gnatcatcher special protection.
Everett M. McCracken, Commission president
McCracken, 72, of Carmichael has been on the commission since 1987. He is the retired top West Coast lobbyist for Shell Oil Co., where he worked most of his life. He is an avid horseman and fisherman and has hundreds of thousands of dollars of investments in California energy and water companies. Appointed by then-Gov. George Deukmejian, he is a Republican whose term expires in 1993.
Benjamin F. Biaggini, Commission vice president
Biaggini, 74, of San Francisco has been on the commission since 1988. He is the retired chairman and chief executive officer of Southern Pacific. He is an avid hunter and fisherman. Biaggini is a major GOP contributor and fund-raiser and has millions of dollars of investments in major corporations, including oil companies. Appointed by Deukmejian, his term expires in 1994.
Albert C. Taucher, Commissioner
Taucher, 67, of Long Beach has the longest tenure on the commission, having served since 1983. He owned a Long Beach sporting-goods store for 27 years until selling it in 1983 and owns many commercial and residential properties in Long Beach and Palm Springs. He is a hunter, fisherman and horseback rider. Taucher, a Republican, was appointed by Deukmejian. His term expires in 1995.
Frank D. Boren, Commissioner
Boren, 57, of Carpinteria was appointed this spring. He served for three years as head of the Nature Conservancy, a national nonprofit group that buys land to save endangered species. He is a former partner with a Sherman Oaks commercial real estate development firm. A Republican, he is an Atlantic Richfield director and a Conservation Fellow with the World Wildlife Fund. His term expires in 1996.