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Land Management Questioned

— In 1997, after six years of planning, the City of San Diego adopted the Multiple Species Conservation Program. The program proposed that 52,012 acres of undeveloped City land be set aside and maintained in perpetuity to preserve habitat for endangered plant and animal species. Federal, state, and local jurisdictions already owned 36,697 acres of undeveloped land. They would acquire the remainder over several decades. The City of San Diego's share was an estimated 2400 acres, about 1000 of which developers would contribute. Later the City's share was increased to 4691 acres.

San Diego isn't the only local government agency involved with the Multiple Species Conservation Program. The county and several other cities -- as well as developers and environmentalists -- worked to develop the comprehensive plan, which covers the southwest section of the county. The plan's goal, as Mayor Susan Golding wrote, was "to put aside habitat for endangered species while making it easier and less expensive for property owners to develop their land." "The Multiple Species Conservation Program," explains David Hogan, director of the San Diego office of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, "is the specific name for a type of program called a Habitat Conservation Plan. Habitat Conservation Plans give the federal government -- the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in this case -- the authority to transfer federal Endangered Species Act permitting authority to a local government agency, in this case the City of San Diego." That authority allows the City to issue permits to developers who want to build on endangered species habitat, and it requires the City to monitor and manage land in the program.

Now, a fight is brewing over whether the City is living up to its commitments. Hogan and his group say it isn't. City officials say it is. But the two sides agree on a surprising number of points. Both describe the open spaces within the program as indispensable "natural infrastructure." Both sides agree that the City once said it would spend $8.3 million a year on the program. Both sides agree that the City isn't spending $8.3 million.

At its inception in 1997, the Multiple Species Conservation Program did not have solid dollar figures attached to it. There was no stipulation as to how much money would be spent annually to acquire land, to manage it so that native species thrived, and to monitor the species to be sure they were thriving. The plan proposed several options by which the City could provide a permanent funding source, and the City stated that it would do so within three years. But by 2000, that hadn't happened. "We started kind of raising some noise about it," Hogan says. "So the Fish and Wildlife Service and the City worked out an agreement whereby the City agreed to pay about $8 million a year for protective management, monitoring, and acquisition of these lands, and that is the figure that we have been going on for what they should be paying, at least between fiscal years 2002 and 2004."

Hogan says the City has spent well short of $8 million on the program every year since the agreement. "From the best that I can tell from combing through the City budget," he says, "they have only provided anywhere from $3 to $4 million a year for things that we would generously give them as crediting towards that program. It is very difficult to quantify because there aren't MSCP line items in the budget. You can't go, 'Oh, this is an MSCP expenditure because...' For example, all the management is supposed to be done by the Department of Park and Recreation, and it is supposed to be done out of the Open Space Division. But, for example, there is a ranger at Balboa Park, and for all we know, the ranger might be doing the occasional habitat management in Florida Canyon, but that is not in the Open Space Division. So it is very difficult to track this stuff down, and the City is not going to tell us what is or isn't in the MSCP budget. There is no clear accounting system for what activities the City is doing to carry out the promises they made."

Keith Greer is a deputy planner in the City's Planning Department, which handles the program's land acquisition and monitoring. He objects to Hogan's assertion that the City isn't forthcoming with information regarding the conservation program. He says that since 1997 the City has acquired 1625 acres, although in the past three years, the City hasn't had the money to acquire land or contract out monitoring. The department's MSCP division currently employs one biologist. Greer, who is the planner in charge of Multiple Species Conservation Program issues, grows a little animated on the phone as he points out that the City posts reports regarding monitoring. "A lot of the stuff...is actually in the annual reports that are given to the public that are made available in PDF form on the Web [sandiego.gov/mscp]. And there is a whole section on MSCP monitoring made available to the public on the Web. As for Mr. Hogan, I would argue that I don't see any other jurisdiction in our region with that kind of information posted on a website. The City of San Diego is actually out there posting it and giving it to the public in more than one way both verbally in public meetings and also on the Web. I would ask, what are the other jurisdictions doing? But that is just me being a little bit sour about that."

As to the $8 million figure, Greer says, "The document that Mr. Hogan is looking at is a three-year funding plan that went to the city council on November 27, 2000. It said, for three years from that date, we have an idea of how we are going to fund the MSCP. And it had $8 million as the average annual allocation. The number actually expired in 2004. And no one has gone back and seen whether $8 million had been allocated to these pots of money. What we have done is we have actually acquired land, we have done management, we have gone out and done monitoring. We are living up to if not exceeding any expectations."

Hogan begs to differ with that point, saying that management of the City's Multiple Species Conservation Program's lands has been substandard. He uses the land adjacent to the San Diego River through Mission Valley and Old Town as an example. "There is a huge homeless encampment in the river channel. I don't want to kick homeless people out of the only place that they have to live, but we need another solution, because that river channel is also supposed to be protected habitat under the MSCP. It says so on the maps, and certainly nobody is doing anything to address that issue. Another area: it is kind of a crazy place, but if you are on Interstate 8 right near the Presidio, there is a steep slope on the south side of the highway there. It's a pretty degraded area, but that area was counted as part of the MSCP. It should never have been counted because it has very little habitat value. But, because they did count it, they need to be doing things to protect habitat there. And they very much are not."

Ann Hicks, who headed the Park and Recreation Department's Open Space Division until moving to a similar job with the City of Chula Vista, lists a few well-known areas in the program. "Tecolote Canyon, Rose Canyon, San Clemente Canyon, Los Peñasquitos, Mission Trails, those would be some real obvious examples. If you go into the North Park area, you'll find a number of small little urban canyons that people wouldn't even know what their names are that might be in the MSCP. Mount Soledad, a lot of the area around Mount Soledad is in the MSCP."

Asked what the Open Space Division does to manage the lands, she answers, "We have a park ranger program -- about 18 park rangers -- and they are concentrated in our bigger open-space parks that are more developed that have trails, or visitor centers, where we have a lot more people. So Mission Trails, we have a lot of park rangers there, Los Peñasquitos. They are out patrolling. We do a lot of fencing to make sure that we keep people out of sensitive areas where we have sensitive plants. We do a lot of interpretive work, where we educate the public about the area. We do some monitoring -- the rangers are out watching to make sure that the habitats are doing all right. We do a lot of work with trying to control trail erosion and keeping our trails in some kind of shape, because that is always bad for the environment. So that is what the rangers do. But, in addition to not enough rangers, we just don't have a lot of the grounds and maintenance personnel to go out and physically do work. We don't have pesticide applicators to go out and spray the nonnative plants, which are a big problem in urban open spaces. We don't have a lot of grounds and maintenance people to help do the erosion work and the trail work. So it is just going to be a matter of time to build that up, and the City doesn't have a lot of spare cash right now. So I am quite sympathetic with David's frustration."

"You are well aware of the City's financial straits," Greer says. "My challenge is to make sure that the program is kept alive until a regional funding measure is approved. And what I would argue is that everything that we have committed to doing is being done. Now, has $8 million a year been spent out of the city coffers? No, it hasn't. But everything that we have promised to do in terms of land management and acquisition has been done."

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