California’s deep and ongoing drought is sending a clear signal to all San Diegans: Climate change is real, and its earliest effects are already here. In San Diego, water shortages are likely to be accompanied by longer and more intense fire seasons, as well as a rise in sea level.

For most residents in coastal regions, that last issue may be the most alarming. Street flooding will become more common in areas like La Jolla and Mission Beach. Natural areas critical to the survival of fish and wildlife, such as wetlands and lagoons, will be swamped with higher tides and salty ocean waters. Homes, freeways and commercial areas are all at risk.

And while these coastal effects are likely to be felt by 2050, the impacts of climate change may be even more devastating in San Diego County’s inland areas. If we hope to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, we must start locally.

San Diego voters were on the right track when they passed the Forest Conservation Initiative back in 1993. The terms of the initiative sunsetted in 2010, however, and the choice of whether – or how – to adjust the zoning regulations in Cleveland National Forest communities now sits with the Board of Supervisors.

The forest, which encompasses small communities like Alpine and Julian, is the last foothold for a tremendous diversity of wildlife in the county. It’s home to more than 20 plant and animal species at risk of extinction. We’ve already seen the disappearance of grizzly bears, California condors and the long-eared kit fox, and risk losing Southern California steelhead, golden and bald eagles and red- and yellow-legged frogs.

Despite the resources invested in keeping these species in the county, drought, wildfires and – perhaps most significantly – human development all threaten their survival.

The Forest Conservation Initiative set important limits on development through zoning regulations that prevented a substantial increase in density, which provided two significant benefits for fish and wildlife.

First, preventing the division of property into small parcels outside of designated country towns protects key wildlife corridors, giving wildlife a better chance to survive in its natural surroundings. Larger parcels also keep density down, which means there are fewer people in an arid region competing with each other – and native species – for limited water supplies.

Second, curbing development in communities far from populated city centers also reduces the number of cars on the road commuting long distances. It’s no secret that lowering the number of vehicle miles traveled correlates directly to fewer greenhouse gas emissions, which are the root cause of our warming atmosphere.

That warming has changed weather patterns and increased the number of natural disasters including wildfires, and the effect may no longer be reversible. But it’s not too late to curb climate change’s most extreme effects.

The Board of Supervisors now has an opportunity to show local residents that it understands its responsibility to protect what remains of the Cleveland National Forest.

By retaining the terms of the voter-approved initiative, county leaders would provide important support for natural areas and make it clear the right place for increased development is closer to city centers. They would also show, at long last, that they understand what’s at stake when it comes to climate change – and that they’re willing to do what it takes to halt its worst effects.

Michael Soulé is a climate change expert and a professor emeritus of environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz. He is a San Diego native and a graduate of San Diego State University. Soulé’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

Catherine Green

Catherine Green was formerly the deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handled daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects.

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