Natural Perspectives: More like a 'heart attack for the mesa'

The Bolsa Chica Land Trust has prepared a restoration plan for a 118-acre portion of the Bolsa Chica mesa, most of which is currently fenced. The area includes Warner Pond and the former Bolsa Chica Gun Club site, both of which are environmentally sensitive sites.

The Land Trust calls its plan "CPR for the Mesa." On its website, it reports that its plan will cost $4.3 million to implement. Wow. Would that be our tax dollars that it hopes to spend?

I wouldn't call this plan CPR for the mesa. When I read the Negative Declaration prepared by the California Department of Fish and Game in regard to this plan, it about gave me a heart attack. There are so many flaws and problems with this plan that it is hard to know where to start.

A Negative Declaration — or Neg Dec for short — is basically a document that says that the project will have no adverse effect. Many factors are taken into consideration when preparing a Neg Dec, including the effect on the biological resources, aesthetics, cultural resources such as Native American artifacts and more.

Edmund Pert, a regional manager with DFG, reviewed the Land Trust's proposed restoration plan and found that although "the original scope of the project could have had a significant impact on the environment, there will not be a significant effect because revisions/mitigations to the project have been made by or agreed to by the applicant."

I disagree with that statement. I believe that an adequate biological assessment was not performed and that the project will indeed have a significant impact. The impacts to wildlife are so great that a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR) should have been prepared. That would have required DFG to consider other alternatives, including no project at all. This is public property, and the public should have a say in what happens there.

I'm not writing this just as an environmental columnist. Over the past 20 years, I have worked on restoration, research and monitoring projects at Bolsa Chica, the Huntington Wetlands and Shipley Nature Center. Vic and I were lead writers for the inch-thick biology section of one version of the Ballona Wetlands Environmental Impact Report. Vic, also a professional biologist, served on the Huntington Beach Planning Commission for six years, as well as four years on the City Council. We have a bit of experience with these matters.

Now here's an interesting twist. Although the Land Trust will be responsible for implementation of the plan, DFG is the lead agency for the project. DFG is not only the one presenting the plan, it is also the agency responsible for reviewing the plan and determining if the effect on the environment is significant or not. A major flaw in CEQA allows the presenter to also be the reviewer.

There are 41 pages in the Negative Declaration document, but the restoration plan itself is only nine pages of maps and drawings. Details of implementation of the plan are lacking.

Also lacking is an adequate biological assessment of the site. The document that is available for review doesn't even have a list of the plant species the Land Trust plans to install. However, I asked Carla Navarro of the DFG for a plant list, and she supplied me with an electronic version. I'll discuss the inappropriateness of some of the selections in a later column.

Another major issue is that the project appeared rather quietly. It was only by sheer luck that I stumbled upon the fact that the plan was already being reviewed by the California Coastal Commission. If the Bolsa Chica Land Trust Stewards hadn't dug a channel that drained a wetland at the end of the new footbridge, I might not have learned of the restoration project before it was too late. Major stakeholders Amigos de Bolsa Chica and the Bolsa Chica Conservancy were not notified. A huge oversight was that Hearthside Homes, an adjacent landowner, was not notified either. That is a violation of CEQA, as Hearthside's lawyer pointed out to DFG.

The documents that are available for review in the reference section of the Huntington Beach Public Library have maps so small that the print is illegible. This severely affects the public's ability to review the plans. Because more than half the time had expired for review (according to the Land Trust's website, comments are due Tuesday), the Amigos de Bolsa Chica requested more time, as did I.

I learned late on Monday that Karen Miner, a supervisor with DFG, has extended the deadline for comments. But at press time, we don't know the new date on which comments are due.

DFG and the Land Trust submitted a request for funding for this project to the Wildlife Conservation Board. I learned on Monday that the $550,000 request will not be reviewed by the Wildlife Conservation Board at its Feb. 24 meeting due to the time extension for public comments on the Neg Dec. But the project can't be implemented until it has all its permits in place.

The basics of the Land Trust's plan are the same as the concept plan that it presented at one of its meetings in fall 2009. Vic and I attended that presentation and wrote a column in opposition to what we saw as at least one major flaw. The Land Trust proposed putting a vertical wind turbine on the mesa. That feature is in the current plan.

Wind turbines cause a reduction in air pressure, which can cause the lungs of bats in the near vicinity to collapse. This kills the bats. The Bolsa Chica mesa is on the migratory pathway of 16 species of bats. I see this as a problem. The Land Trust did not provide data showing the amount of air pressure drop associated with the vertical wind turbine that it proposes to install, or any safety data, so it is not possible to determine what effect there will be on bats.

Here is another major flaw in the plan. In the Neg Dec, the Land Trust states that it will disc — or plow — the mesa three times a year at a depth no greater than 24 inches. In a previous interview, Executive Director Flossie Horgan said that the Land Trust would never harm any wildlife. Let me tell you, disking the mesa three times a year will certainly harm a lot of wildlife. It will kill the snakes and silvery legless lizards that are in the way of the sharp blades. It will kill the rodents that live on the mesa, either by direct injury or by removing the plants that they live on.

Eliminating the rodents, snakes and lizards will eliminate a major food source for the nesting great blue herons, nesting great horned owls, wintering burrowing owls and various raptor species that use the mesa for foraging. The denning coyotes will find less food on the mesa and will turn to neighborhood pets to feed their pups.

Believe me, I haven't even scratched the surface of the flaws in this plan. Stay tuned for the next installment of "heart attack on the mesa."

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LMurrayPhD@gmail.com.

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