Natural Perspectives: Land Trust finally calls public meeting

The Bolsa Chica Land Trust and California Department of Fish and Game are finally holding a public meeting where they will present their plan for the Bolsa Chica mesa.

The meeting is at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Huntington Beach Central Library. As we're sure you're aware, Vic and I are opposed to many of the features of this "restoration" plan.

It really ought to be called a development plan. It features heavy equipment, grading, disking the soil, installation of solar panels and a wind turbine, hordes of people impacting the wildlife on the mesa, plant nurseries and huge compost piles to decompose 500 tons of mesa plants each year. In my opinion, this constitutes a development project. Note that DFG and the Land Trust are required to have a coastal development permit from the California Coastal Commission.

Thursday will be the first real opportunity that the public has had to comment on the plan. Yes, I'm aware that the concept plan was presented in a town hall meeting about nine months ago. But it was only a concept plan.

That was the first look at the plan that anyone outside DFG and the Land Trust inner circle was afforded. With no prior information, it was certainly not an opportunity to ask meaningful questions. I was waiting to comment at the public scoping hearings that I was sure that DFG would convene. But no such meetings were held.

The topic of the plan also never came up at the Bolsa Chica work group meetings that are held every two months. Local DFG biologists Kelly O'Reilly and Carla Navarro attend those meetings, as do representatives from the Amigos de Bolsa Chica, Bolsa Chica Conservancy and the Land Trust. That would have been a good venue for presentation and discussion of the plan. But no such mention of the plan occurred.

This plan was prepared essentially in secret and submitted to the Coastal Commission with only a tiny notice in a Sunday newspaper. Stakeholders were not notified, as is required by California Environmental Quality Act.

This lack of public involvement also flies in the face of the Memorandum of Understanding between DFG and the Land Trust. A sentence in this MOU states, "The restoration plan will be based on the best available science, incorporate technical scientific expertise, and will be developed through a public planning process that allows stakeholders to provide input and comment on restoration planning."

Some of our readers have criticized me for not seeking answers from the Land Trust. Well, I have tried. I sent them extensive lists of questions.

But the Land Trust didn't answer my questions. They simply requested that I attend their meeting Thursday. Because many of my questions are technical and require supporting documentation, I doubt that they will answer them even then.

You've heard some of my objections to their plan in previous columns. Today, I am going to discuss the impact of their project on Southern tarplant. This species is a rare plant found on the Bolsa Chica mesa and not very many other places. It is included on the California Native Plant Society's "Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants of California" as a List IB.1 plant. Species on this list are considered rare throughout their range and at risk of becoming extinct. All such plants are protected by the DFG code and are eligible for state listing as either threatened or endangered. Southern tarplant is also a federal species of concern.

Southern tarplant, which has pretty yellow flowers and smells like tar, has been reported in only 64 locations in Southern California and four places in Mexico. Of those 64 locations, the populations in about 30% of the places have been extirpated. About 40% of the remaining 34 populations are threatened with extirpation.

The Southern tarplant habitat on the Bolsa Chica mesa was identified as an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area (ESHA) in a Nov. 2, 2000, Coastal Commission staff report. Other ESHAs on the lower bench are Warner Pond and the eucalyptus grove. These areas earn special protection under the law.

The May 21, 2004, staff report to the Coastal Commission for the Brightwater project repeated that opinion. The staff report stated that the Southern tarplant population on the upper bench of the Bolsa Chica mesa was significant enough to qualify as an ESHA. To quote from Page 7 of that report, "With the exception of a few isolated individuals, the Southern tarplant population is considered ESHA, as is the burrowing owl habitat."

Even more importantly, the staff report noted that the tarplant population on the lower bench was even more extensive than that on the upper bench.

The draft Mitigated Negative Declaration for the Land Trust's plan authorizes disking the mesa and does not exclude tarplant habitat. The following statement appears: "Non-native grassland and ruderal weed species dominate the lower mesa. There is [sic] approximately 110 acres of this habitat. In addition, a few specimens of endangered tarplant (Centromadia parryii ssp. australis)…can be found adjacent to the trails on the southwest (inside and outside of the security fence) and northeast sides of the mesa." No reference was given to support this statement.

"A few specimens"? This flies in the face of facts. According to Coastal Commission biologist John Dixon, the Bolsa Chica Southern tarplant population is one of the more significant stands in Southern California. The consulting firm LSA Associates performed careful surveys of the entire mesa for tarplant, counting each plant and mapping each colony. They counted 3,401 individuals in 1999 and 9,293 individuals in 2000. Because of the extreme variability of density and location of these rare annuals, botanist Fred Roberts recommended that suitable grassland habitat be preserved in consideration of the population dynamics of this species.

According to Coastal Commission documents, the Bolsa Chica mesa is one of five places throughout the tarplant's range that has a population of more than 8,000 individuals (Bolsa Chica Local Coastal Program, Land Use Amendment No. 1-95/ Implementing Actions Program, Nov. 2, 2000, pg. 259).

To quote, "The Bolsa Chica population is therefore of major significance to this species. Simply preserving one portion of the mesa that had large numbers of individuals this year or any given year provides no assurance that the viability of the population will be maintained."

The recommendation was the preservation of the entire lower bench, which was completed by Coastal Commission action. But most of the rare population of Southern tarplant is on the lower bench, right where the Land Trust plans to disk, grade, build roads and build four Terra-Farms.

Southern tarplant needs to be protected from the Land Trust's "restoration" plan.

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

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