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In “Years of Broken Promises on Protected Land,” Rob Davis does make an important point: that San Diego has done a poor job of protecting lands where it has a legal responsibility to do so. Unfortunately, his article was inflammatory, even insulting, to those who are trying to actually protect Del Mar Mesa. I am one of those people, and I want to present another side to the story.

As background, I have a botany Ph.D. and I hike Del Mar Mesa twice per week, volunteering for city parks to monitor the area, pick up trash, weed and talk to people. I do everything from helping lost people find the right trail to educating bikers about vernal pools. I’ve been volunteering for the parks for nine months, but I did the same work unofficially for several years before that.

The reason I care is simple: Del Mar Mesa is unique in California. The Tunnels area immediately to the north is the largest patch of old growth oak chaparral south of Morro Bay. It is called the Tunnels because the scrub oaks are so big you walk under them, as if in a tunnel. The Tunnels lead up to the top of the mesa, which has the biggest concentration of vernal pools on city land. This combination of old growth and vernal pools is unique.

Protecting Del Mar Mesa is critical. I’ve documented plenty of vandalism in the area, and I’ve spent many hours trying to figure out how to stop it. In fact, I first started volunteering for the parks after I tripped over the remnants of an old marijuana grow while weeding and reported it. When you read what I’m about to say, realize that my primary goal is protecting the animals, plants and ecosystems on Del Mar Mesa.

The problem is that signs and fences simply won’t protect the area. If these structures are flimsy, they will be vandalized faster than any agency can repair them. If they are sturdy enough to actually stop people (think concrete traffic barriers, razor wire, border fence-style construction, etc.), they will trash the Mesa. The area is currently home to a complete ecosystem, including deer, bobcats, coyotes, possibly a vagrant mountain lion and many, many rabbits. If they manage to wall Del Mar Mesa off, all the large predators will disappear. They live there only because they can move to other wild areas nearby. In their absence, the rabbit population will explode, and that will destroy the rare plants and trash the vernal pools. A fenced-off Del Mar Mesa will lose everything the fence is designed to protect. Worse, such fencing would be a white elephant, something people would have to pay for without being able to appreciate, use or even see it. We don’t need white elephants. We need effective preservation.

The only viable alternative I’ve been able to find is outreach and education. Yes, the people visiting Del Mar Mesa are the problem, but most damage is caused out of ignorance. I’m trying to educate them, with good results. Almost everyone I meet in the field is courteous. Most of them want to learn, and many seem willing to avoid vernal pools. Yes, I also get abuse, and yes, there are active vandals. But if keeping people away is not viable, this is the best solution I’ve found. Unfortunately, education and outreach are not solutions the city appears to be considering in the Vernal Pool Habitat Conservation Plan they are currently writing. They are developing their plan primarily from older reports and a GIS database, and they are not interested in what is happening at places like Del Mar Mesa.

Why care about old growth and vernal pools? Old growth scrub oaks are plants that haven’t burned in at least a century. This is not an area that is “overdue” for a fire. Rather it is an area that, for topographical reasons, rarely burns. As a result, these large oaks produce heavy crops of acorns, which help support the abundant wildlife in the area. It is cool under the oaks, and they probably sequester a lot of carbon. It is a working landscape in many ways.

Vernal pools are important for science, as well as being the only place amphibians breed in the area. For those who don’t know, vernal pools are miniature ecosystems that develop where water ponds in depressions on top of hardpan. They only stay wet for a few months, and most of the animals and plants that live in them live really short, really fast lives. One person called the pools “miniature Serengetis,” and if you stand quietly and watch, you can see all of life’s dramas happening within such a pool. Vernal pool organisms survive between the rains as dormant eggs, cysts, spores and seeds, and they can stay dormant for decades, if not centuries. If vernal pools weren’t so rare, the researchers at UC San Diego could study vernal pool organisms, figure out their dormancy tricks and use this knowledge. Perhaps they could find ways to store perishable drugs without refrigeration, or to transport donated organs longer distances. Possibly they could learn how to make humans dormant for decades, so that we could travel to another star, as in “Avatar.”

Instead, San Diego places little real value on vernal pools, and we’re stuck arguing about whether people can even see them up close, how to keep bikers from riding through them and how many get to be developed. What a waste! More than 97 percent of San Diego’s vernal pools are gone, and Del Mar Mesa is the biggest remnant on city land. I hope that the people visiting Del Mar Mesa learn to love and care for the place, without loving it to death. It’s worth protecting, not just because it has endangered species, but because it’s unique, and beautiful, and it supports many good things.

Frank Landis lives in north San Diego.


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