Finding Middle Ground

An unprecedented experiment in wildlife conservation began Wednesday in an Orange County meadow, as a major land developer and high-level government officials signed a plan that some predict will be a national model for protecting both economic interests and rare plants and animals.

Amid applause, the officials signed an agreement that creates a 37,000-acre wildlife preserve in the county’s central and coastal areas. Designed to shield nearly 40 troubled species from extinction, the deal also grants landowners new assurances when they build outside the preserve’s boundaries.

At a time when the federal Endangered Species Act is under attack by developers and property rights groups, the Orange County plan is being heralded as a way to avoid collisions between builders and government regulators over the act’s restrictions on private land. It was born out of conflicts over the California gnatcatcher, the rare songbird that dwells in coastal sage scrub on some of the nation’s most expensive real estate.

“I am awed by the complex and delicate process that brought so many different interests together,” said Irvine Co. Chairman Donald L. Bren, whose company is committing nearly 21,000 acres of land for the preserve. “I am overwhelmed by the magnitude of this achievement.”

Along with Bren, U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and state Resources Agency Secretary Douglas P. Wheeler were key players in crafting the landmark pact. All three men spoke to a crowd of nearly 200 at Wednesday’s dedication ceremony in Shady Canyon, against a backdrop of pastures and hills turned brown by the summer sun.

The audience included some unlikely allies who helped negotiate the plan: representatives of the Democratic White House, the Republican administration in Sacramento, developers and environmental groups.

The Orange County preserve, approved unanimously in April by the Board of Supervisors, is the first major plan of its kind created under the Natural Community Conservation Planning program, written by Gov. Pete Wilson’s administration in 1991 in the hope of balancing business and environmental interests. Preserves similar to the one approved Wednesday are being planned for South County and San Diego County.

Babbitt, who flew to California for the ceremony, hailed the preserve’s creation as a new approach to conservation–one that has special resonance in fast-growing areas such as Orange County, where open land is quickly being overtaken by homes, malls and highways.

In an earlier era, conservationists reached out to protect “the back country, Yosemite, the Sierra Nevada, the California desert, all of the great wild spaces,” Babbitt said in an interview before the ceremony. “At the same time that we were protecting the faraway, we were ignoring the nearby. It was as if we were saying we could establish a balance with nature on the far horizon while ignoring our own neighborhood.”

By establishing preserves like the one in Orange County, Babbitt said, “we ought to be able to protect the values that make California so attractive–not in the abstract, 500 miles away, but outside the back door in the morning.”

Despite talk of the day’s historic importance, the atmosphere was decidedly casual, with several guests in jeans and Babbitt in a short-sleeved plaid shirt and khakis. Guests were given pale green baseball caps and posters with the slogan “Forever Wild.”

The new preserve, to be protected from development for at least 75 years, is nearly nine times larger than Griffith Park in Los Angeles. Stretching from Costa Mesa to San Juan Capistrano, it forms a patchwork of native habitat areas, such as the coastal sage scrub that is vital to the gnatcatcher’s survival.

Landowners who participate in the NCCP plan are to be freed from strict endangered-species laws on land outside the preserve, although they still must abide by other development regulations.

The preserve is designed to shield whole habitats, rather than individual plants and animals, its creators emphasize. That approach is considered essential to warding off extinction for the gnatcatcher and other rare animals and plants.

But some environmentalists are concerned that the plan has been oversold. Leeona Klippstein of Whittier, spokeswoman for the Spirit of the Sage Council, has contended that more gnatcatchers have been lost through recent development than the federal government acknowledges.

William L. Rukeyser, spokesman for the Sacramento-based California Biodiversity Alliance, cautioned Wednesday against assuming too quickly that the Orange County plan is a national model. Not until data are collected and analyzed, he said, will the preserve’s success be proven.

“What we don’t have yet is several years of real-life experience [to determine] does it work or doesn’t it. And that’s the bottom line,” Rukeyser said.

Some questioned why the ceremony was held in Shady Canyon, an area that lies partially outside the preserve, and where as many as 400 homes may be built. An Irvine Co. spokesman said the site was chosen because of its convenience for guests and because it offers a view of the preserve without intruding on the open space.

Others in the environmental community say the plan provides proof that the Endangered Species Act can survive even amid development pressures and the fragile natural habitats of Southern California.

Dan Silver, coordinator of the Los Angeles-based Endangered Habitats League, recalled the era of the “gnatcatcher wars,” in the early 1990s, when developers feared that federal protections for the tiny songbird could put the brakes on the local economy.

“The doomsayers were simply proven wrong,” Silver said. “The main message is that the Endangered Species Act works. It was flexible; it allowed people to reach consensus.”

Deborah Schoch, Los Angeles Times