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A threat to our conservation plan

Once again, it's up against the public relations wall for San Diego's nationally acclaimed conservation program, the Multiple Species Habitat Plan. This time, the assault is not coming from the extreme property rights advocates who plagued the habitat plan's early days, but from Tucson's Southwest Center for Biological Diversity which enlisted a pack of local environmental groups in their hot pursuit to purify MSCP. The group filed suit when 66 ancient vernal pools were stupidly bulldozed into near extinction on the new Cousins Mira Mesa mall site. The suit claims that the city's conservation program, the plan whose advocates hoped would end land-use planning-by-lawsuit, does not protect several threatened species inhabiting these rare earthen indentations scattered about San Diego. That the Southwest Center, which regards the Endangered Species Act second only to the tablets on Mount Sinai, filed legal action is not surprising. The organization is an environmental lawsuit clearinghouse whose stable of attorneys seek to hold government agencies to every dotted "I" in the Endangered Species Act. Their web site lists over 50 resolved and pending suits on behalf of a laundry list of species. Their track record is impressive. Representatives of the Southwest Center make no secret of their antipathy toward habitat conservation solutions like San Diego's MSCP, whose flexible planning style is too elastic for their comfort. So, it wasn't unexpected that MSCP would face such a court challenge sometime in its young life. In fact, many MSCP advocates welcome the suit that many believe will not only vindicate the program, but bolster its force of law. But, when local environmental groups signed on to the Southwest Center lawsuit, MSCP planners and advocates felt like the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. While some of the groups tethered to the lawsuit exist in little more than name only, many have very real political cache earned through years of environmental advocacy. If not put in perspective, this new wrinkle could turn into a public relations nightmare of stadium proportions. The gang-up on MSCP is startling coming on the heals of the programs most dramatic demonstration of success. With voter approval of Propositions M and K, $160 million in restored and conserved habitat connecting Los Penasquitos Canyon, San Dieguito River Valley and Black Mountain became public lands at no taxpayer cost. At the same time, Carmel Mountain, long sought for its habitat connectivity to Torrey Pines State Park, was dedicated to the city last month. In its first year of implementation, 14,130 acres of habitat were preserved in the city compared to a loss of 243 acres. And, as over a thousand acres of prime habitat on Del Mar Mesa became preserve, including 51 acres of vernal pool habitat, MSCP guidelines prevented an alignment for state Rout 56 that would have made it a concrete barrier across one of the city's most important wildlife corridors to Los Penasquitos Canyon. Regionally, over 35,000 acres has been preserved under MSCP plans with more to come as funding for acquisition becomes available or other development projects contribute their share of lands to the interconnected preserve system which will one day comprise about 175,000 acres of undeveloped open space. The timing of the lawsuit couldn't be worse for MSCP. Land acquisition and preserve management funding must be in place within the next few years to keep local oversight over development permitting around sensitive habitat. If not met, San Diego returns to the old days where builders waded through costly layers of state and federal building permit requirements and planning proceeded project by project. For those of us who are as concerned about housing for people as we are for plants and animals, the demise of MSCP would spell bad economic and conservation news. Without the regulatory relief, San Diegans will see more expensive housing and slower infrastructure improvements. And without a funded integrated habitat plan, critical habitat areas will become increasingly segregated and in private hands without management oversight. MSCP is more a process than a plan on paper -- its successes are the result of unusual coalitions between former adversaries. The sudden burst of angst from some environmental groups reflects a persistent unease that MSCP is a "developers plan" designed more around political expediency than sound biology. By the same token, there are plenty in the building industry who interpret this lawsuit as evidence that the biological needs of environmentalists reside in the recesses of a bottomless pit. Balancing economic necessity with protecting the defenseless means reconciling very powerful instincts, a task that the public interest groups, builders, property owners, planners and environmentalists who negotiated MSCP understand better than most. The MSCP has proven resilient by the shear force of the policy's sense of fair-play -- and there's every reason to believe that San Diego's conservation plan will survive this latest skirmish with flying colors. And that is because the public, who must ultimately pay the bill, usually does the right thing.

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