Promised Refuge Teeters Between Fulfillment and Failure

Thursday, Oct. 4, 2007 | Two thousand feet below the peak of San Miguel Mountain, the brown landscape is cut in half.

Look west, and the San Diego metroplex starts, all red-tile roofs and new asphalt and car windshields twinkling in the streaming sunlight.

Look east, and jagged mountain ridges jut up through the haze, blanketed in native plants home to 22 endangered and threatened species.

This is the dividing line between coastal sprawl and the eastern backcountry, the buffer between new California and the chaparral-covered landscape that defined old California.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist John Martin looks out from the 2,500-foot peak east of San Diego, and sweeps his hand across the horizon.

“As San Diego marches east,” Martin says, “this is the front line.”

That front line has a name: The San Diego National Wildlife Refuge. It was created in 1996 as part of the Multiple Species Conservation Program, a plan that outlined a blueprint for the region’s future growth. The program was a tradeoff that allowed less important habitat to be developed in exchange for protecting the most vital remaining land. Instead of land being conserved or developed on a housing project-by-housing project basis, the program outlined a region-wide preserve system.

The refuge was among the most vital parcels designated for conservation, because of its size and location — and because it was intact.

As envisioned, the refuge was a keystone of undeveloped land that would connect preserved land along the South County coastline with conserved land in the Cleveland National Forest and the mountain ranges beyond.

But the refuge has not yet lived up to its promise, according to a report recently authored by Jerre Stallcup, an Encinitas-based conservation biologist. Property acquisition has slowed as funding has decreased. The refuge today is a jumbled patchwork of 25,000 acres owned by a variety of government agencies, private landowners and a nonprofit conservation group. Some development has pushed into land that was targeted for conservation.

“The concern is that as funding sources change, as attitudes change, as politicians change, there may not be the same level of support in the future as there was in the past,” says Stallcup, who is affiliated with the Oregon-based Conservation Biology Institute. “I’m concerned that we’re already seeing that trend.”

The refuge grew rapidly in its first five years. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, spent $19 million and acquired 7,155 acres — some from donations — in that time. But in the six years since, the service’s spending dropped to $11 million and 887 acres were set aside.

As conservation has slowed, development pressures have been pushing closer to the refuge’s target boundary. Two subdivisions are under construction within the refuge’s western boundary. A one-street-long gated community called The Pointe reaches like a tentacle into the preserve’s northern edge.

Andy Yuen, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s refuge project manager, says he is concerned about development pushing into the refuge. But he points out that while some homes have been built inside the refuge’s target boundary, other permitted projects have not been developed, instead being preserved.

But development pressure is increasing, Stallcup says. And if private landowners inside the refuge boundary decide to develop their land instead of selling or donating it for conservation, the existing preserve — about 25,000 acres in all — would lose much of its value, she says.

When homes are built near undeveloped land, a variety of effects impact the open space. Domestic cats may chase after endangered birds. ATV riders may carve new trails over previously undisturbed terrain. Invasive grasses (and more people nearby) can increase fire risk.

Martin, the wildlife biologist, points to a hillside on San Miguel Mountain that used to house a golden eagle nest as evidence of those effects. As development pushed closer to the refuge, the eagles vacated their nest.

If the refuge isn’t preserved as a contiguous space and is instead fragmented, its ecological value will drop, Stallcup says. A larger landscape helps promote genetic diversity among resident species. More space helps maintain normal relationships between predators and their prey.

“Unless you maintain those linkages, we’re not going to have that,” Stallcup says. “If you start developing within that area and fragmenting it into smaller pieces, then you impact not only the 25,000 acres, but all of the preserved land in South County.”

Bureaucratic hurdles created by the numerous government agencies owning land within the refuge boundary add to the challenges. The county and city of San Diego own property, as does the California Department of Fish and Game, the federal Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Nature Conservancy. That wide ownership makes law enforcement problematic.

Like bandits escaping to Mexico in old Westerns, illegal ATV riders who cross from federal land onto state or private land can’t be pursued, Yuen said. This barrier exists in an area where off-roading has clearly impacted the terrain and its sensitive habitat. Clay-colored off-road trails are carved into the hillsides.

Stallcup says those bureaucratic barriers are “ridiculous.” Pointing to those agencies that own land within the refuge’s boundaries, she says, “They’re all managing it independently of each other — or not managing it. Where we have such scarce resources, it would be so much more cost-effective to pool those.”

One agency may undertake a project to remove invasive plants from a river’s edge, Stallcup says, without consulting with another agency upstream to see if similar steps are being taken. What can result, she says, are often fruitless efforts to manage the land. If the upstream owner leaves invasive plants in place, their seeds wash downstream, germinate and grow back.

Asked why the ownership isn’t consolidated, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Yuen pointed to his three-member staff already managing 8,500 acres of federally owned land on the refuge.

“My concern would be how much thinner can I spread those people out,” he says, “and still have them be effective?”

David Hogan, conservation manager for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, says despite the challenges, he remains hopeful that the refuge will live up to its potential.

“Because of its large size and connectivity, the area provides a tremendous opportunity for good management,” he says. “Unfortunately, good management is not occurring today.”

Stallcup says it remains imperative for the refuge to be completed. About 20,000 acres would need to be preserved.

“It’s a big area, it’s going to take a lot of resources to finish,” she says. “But all of the state, federal and local monies that have been spent were spent with the knowledge that this would be conserved.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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