On the shrubby hillside below an undeveloped mesa south of Highway 56 and east of Black Mountain Road in San Diego, a city sign bellows a disregarded warning: ENDANGERED ANIMAL AND PLANT HABITAT AREA. NO TRESPASSING OR DUMPING.

On paper, hundreds of acres here in Del Mar Mesa are preserved and protected by the federal Endangered Species Act. Some of San Diego’s rarest creatures live here. But in reality, that protection comes in little more than name only.

Garbage is strewn across the ground. Fresh bicycle tire tracks cut through San Diego’s largest remaining concentration of vernal pools. The pools, flat indentations that are dry most of the year, trap winter rains and teem with life in the spring. Hundreds here are home to two endangered species at risk of extinction: the San Diego fairy shrimp and the San Diego mesa mint. They live on some of the city’s most rarified land.

And they aren’t being protected as promised.

When the city, state and federal governments struck a heralded 1997 deal with local developers and environmentalists, they outlined what land San Diego would develop and preserve. In a region where development had pushed many species to the brink of extinction, the compromise promised homebuilders cheaper, streamlined permitting and environmentalists a coherent, well-managed system of protected land.

Fifteen years later, developers have reaped their benefits. The deal eliminated the need for lengthy state and federal approvals to kill endangered species. The city alone now grants those permits, which can save millions and easily cut four years off a large project, says Jim Whalen, a consultant for a group of developers that supported the plan.

But a key environmental promise has repeatedly been broken. Undeveloped land has been preserved — some 33,000 acres in San Diego alone — but has often festered and been forgotten.

Photo by Rob Davis
San Diego’s largest concentration of rare vernal pools is found in Del Mar Mesa. But broken fencing doesn’t keep bikers from trespassing there.

When San Diego approved the deal, it promised within three years to find a long-term source of money to ensure the land was used right. So did San Diego County, which passed a similar deal. Money would establish trails for hiking, biking and horse-riding. It would restore habitat for rare species that had been destroyed by weeds, access roads and years of misuse. It would pay for biological studies to make sure the preserve system was working. Needs are estimated at $3 billion countywide over 40 years.

But 2000 went by. No money. Then in 2004, as the San Diego Association of Governments pushed voters to extend TransNet, a sales tax increase to pay for road and transit projects, it formally promised another initiative to raise money for habitat protection throughout the whole county by 2008. That deadline passed and Sandag delayed the measure until 2010. Then 2012.

Now, Sandag says it’ll put an initiative before voters in 2016, nearly 20 years after the money was first promised. Environmentalists have encouraged the recent delays. Sandag says the effort would fail today, that public education must first occur. But the organization has been saying that for five years and in the meantime hasn’t started public education.

“It is a huge challenge,” says Rob Rundle, principal planner at Sandag. “We want to position ourselves for the best time. We don’t know that it will never pass, but we don’t want to set ourselves up for failure by doing it when it won’t pass.”

The result: Thousands of acres have been set aside in San Diego County often with little way for people to legally use them. Instead, land like Del Mar Mesa sits in limbo, accessed by those willing to ignore the No Trespassing signs and makeshift fencing, but not those who could give it the TLC it needs.

Photo by Rob Davis
Bike tire tracks cut through a vernal pool in Del Mar Mesa, where land has been set aside to protect endangered species.

“The people who would love the place are blocked out,” says David Hogan, director of the Chaparral Conservancy, a local environmental nonprofit. “And the people who don’t care run amok.”

In Del Mar Mesa, north of Peñasquitos Canyon and west of Interstate 15, tiny trails once used by deer have been transformed into wide, eroded gullies. Shrubs have been cut down and trimmed back. Marijuana has been found growing. Dozens of bike trails cut through the sensitive land, up hillsides, across flat land, through the low-hanging canopy.

A chain-link fence surrounds the preserve. But it also has gaping holes in it, wide enough to walk or carry a bike through. One key section near neighboring homes is missing entirely. Another gap has been patched together by a single, precarious strand of wire.

State and city rangers sporadically patrol this area. But their occasional presence hasn’t dissuaded those who trash the land. Authorities just don’t have enough money to build the fences, trails and signs that are needed, Hogan says.

“Many of these places have awesome land managers on the ground,” he says. “Without effective funding, they’re scraping here and there to get fence posts to close a gap or wire to patch a fence.”

Despite the delays, Sandag does award $4 million annually to manage land throughout the county, which has transformed other abused land into success stories. It gave San Diego a $325,000 grant to install vehicle barriers on protected city land in Proctor Valley, near Chula Vista. That helped deter off-road vehicles and allowed illegal trails to return to nature after we identified the problem in a 2007 story.

Photo by Rob Davis
San Diego mesa mint, an endangered species, is found in vernal pools like those protected atop Del Mar Mesa.

Many in the environmental community say $4 million annually isn’t enough, but are content to wait until a ballot initiative has a chance to pass. If Sandag pushes an initiative now that fails, which polling says it undoubtedly will, the agency will have fulfilled its commitment. Then the money may never surface, says Michael Beck, San Diego director of the Endangered Habitats League.

“Whatever it takes to get to that golden ring is what we’re pursuing,” he says. “Waiting longer to get there is bad, but it’s not terrible.”

Complicating things further: Putting habitat funding alone in a ballot initiative would never pass. “Never in a million years,” Beck says. Sandag thinks a successful effort would have to be big. Multi-billions big, with billions for habitat and billions more for transit, water quality and beach replenishment. Then it would have to actually be approved. The county has twice rejected tax increases for fire protection after people died in firestorms, though Sandag has twice won voter approval for road and transit spending.

But any broader effort could face competition for Sandag’s limited taxing authority. The agency is also being eyed by local leaders to go to voters to raise taxes for a Chargers stadium or a massive infrastructure repair program.

In the meantime, Del Mar Mesa gets trashed. Chris Zirkle, a city of San Diego parks official, says he knows about the problems there. But the city hopes within months to finish a plan for Del Mar Mesa that would outline where trails should go.

Then it will have to find the money, somewhere, to install them. Volunteer labor will be vital, Zirkle says.

Rob Davis is a senior reporter at voiceofsandiego.org. You can contact him directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529.

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Rob Davis was formerly a senior reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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