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Scientists to Help Shape Planned Preserve

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In what some are calling a victory for science, eight experts have been named to help shape the creation of a massive preserve in southern Orange County.

The experts are to provide biological expertise during the forging of a plan aimed at balancing environmental and business interests.

Some say the experts may also help dispel criticism that scientists played too minor a role in an earlier preserve plan for the county’s central and coastal areas. That plan, signed this summer, was the first such plan completed under the state Natural Community Conservation Planning (NCCP) program, and some environmentalists claim it needed more scientific scrutiny.

Still, the first Orange County plan has attracted national attention, in part because it won support from both landowners and some environmental groups.

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Now reserve designers are turning their attention to the county’s southern portion, where plans for a preserve containing as much as 42,000 acres are behind schedule.

Much of the land is owned by the Santa Margarita Co., which is among the participants in the preserve planning group.

The eight experts were chosen by a consensus of that group, said Michael O’Connell, NCCP director for the Nature Conservancy.

“Their purpose is to bring the best biological information to bear on the planning process,” said O’Connell, adding that the experts will not pass final judgment on the plan.

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The experts, who will meet for the first time next Tuesday, could help boost public confidence in the program, said Dan Silver, coordinator of the Los Angeles-based Endangered Habitats League and a member of the preserve planning group.

“We welcome it. It’s overdue, but much welcome,” said Silver. “This has been done with the strong encouragement of the environmental community.”

He added: “I think that as we look at using these programs as national models, the kind of independent scientific input component is important to all parties--that the plan be defensible.”

The state NCCP program was sparked by concerns that federal legal protection of a rare bird called the California gnatcatcher could provoke an impasse between environmentalists and developers in Southern California.

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Under the program, preserves are designed to protect the gnatcatcher and other rare animals and plants, and participating landowners are freed from stringent guidelines on land outside the preserve.

The group includes two scientists widely associated with the gnatcatcher debate: ornithologist Jonathan Atwood of Manomet Observatory in Massachusetts, and Dennis Murphy, director of Stanford University’s Center for Conservation Biology.

O’Connell said the other experts are Peter Bloom of the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, Robert Fisher of UC San Diego; Thomas Scott of UC Riverside, Trish Smith and Robin Wills of the Nature Conservancy and Paul Zedler of San Diego State University.

The experts’ group will not replace the six scientific advisors appointed earlier by the state to assist the program, said Larry Eng, an NCCP expert with the state Department of Fish and Game.

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Most of those advisors have said they were seldom called upon to assist in the design of the Orange County central/coastal preserve, and some environmentalists say the program is driven less by science than by politics and economics.


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