Who Knew Climate Change and Policy Was So Complicated?

By Frank Landis, Chairperson Conservation Committee

We seem to be hearing that in all sorts of unexpected contexts right now (I'm writing this on May 1st), but I'm going to focus on climate change and policy again. The issue I'm struggling with is the North County Multiple Species Conservation Program (NCMSCP, because you need more acronyms). I'm on the steering committee, and the documents (hopefully) will be out this fall. We'll be dealing with it for a while, and I wanted to air the issues so that we can all start thinking about it, because it really is complicated.

Problem one is climate change. According to a recent National Geographic article, half of 4,000 species surveyed are moving towards the poles, about one mile per year on land on average (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/04/climate -change-species-migration-disease/ ). We'll argue endlessly about whether this is true for all land species, but the point is that the climate is changing, it will continue to change, species are responding to it, and what we're fighting right now is massive societal inertia to determine how fast and how far the climate swings from 20th Century normal. The nasty part of even extreme climate change isn't the quasi-stable end state (basically like the Miocene), it's how extreme the peak heat is between now and then (a few centuries of something possibly like the end Permian Great Dying, or more likely, the end Paleocene). That peak heat is the extinction-maker we want to avoid if at all possible. That aside, the point is that the world is already changing, it will continue to change, and we're talking about what will suffer, not how to stop the change.

Then we have the NCMSCP itself. This document, if approved, will be in force for the next 50 years of that change. The general problem the NCMSCP is intended to solve is that piecemeal conservation an EIR at a time, a project at a time, doesn't yield very good or consistent results. Rather than trying to maintain a patchwork of little preserves, little islands of native habitat in a sea of development, as we have along the coast, the aim is to identify land parcels with high conservation value, acquire them if possible (and I'll get back to that in a moment), and thereby cobble together a set of preserves with wildlife corridors between them, so plant and animals (well, mostly animals) can move and adapt. Little habitat islands have the nasty habit of losing all the species that can't maintain a breeding population in whatever little parcel is there, so bigger is better. Land can be set aside for conservation within a developed parcel, or offsite habitat destruction can be mitigated on the MSCP lands, or preserves can be bought outright, with funds that come from...somewhere.

The MSCP is supposed to cover listed and special species, as well as sensitive vegetation types. The idea is to preserve them for the 50-year length of the program, but this comes with some caveats. The covered species will be preserved within some high value areas, but they will be allowed to be "taken" (e.g. killed) in other areas. Moreover, there is a "no surprises" clause, so that if a big new population of a covered species shows up in a development where it was not known before, the developer can take that population if they so choose (and truth be told, not all of them do).

The 20 year-old South County MSCP covered 85 species, but citing lessons learned, the people writing the North County MSCP currently plan to cover only 24, with 15 more on a non-covered watch lit. It turned out that 85 species was simply too much for any San Diego jurisdiction to monitor successfully. Worse, some of species were questionable: they turned out to not be rare, or they may not live in the county at all. There's some argument right now about whether the NCMSCP should cover more species or not, and I'll get back to that, because it is a bit complicated.

The third issue is the shape of the NCMSCP lands. It doesn't cover all of North County, just some of the undeveloped lands that aren't used for something else, like agriculture. The challenge is that there isn't that much of the land left. To put it whimsically, if I'd gotten here 100 years ago, knowing what I know now, and had the power to lay out all the cities in the County, I would not have put San Marcos, Escondido, or Highway 78 where they are right now, simply because they block some otherwise really nice wildlife north-south corridors. As a result, the NCMSCP north- south wildlife corridors have to go around San Marcos and Escondido, and they are rather long and stringy, simply because that's where the undeveloped lands are.

The relative width and size of the corridors becomes important when we think about climate change, because species will need to move to find suitable habitat during droughts and floods, as well as when flowering and fruiting times change for their food— and that's just the animals. The plants will have to move too, somehow.

The shape of the wildlife corridors also becomes important when we think about what "no surprises" means in the context of a changing climate. Is it okay for covered species to migrate, or are they unprotected if they show up on the wrong parcel? That's potentially a big problem, because "no surprises" would seem to work best in an unchanging environment, and we don't have even the illusion of that anymore. What do we do about migrants?

Ultimately, the NCMSCP is conservation on a reservation system: species are considered safe when they are on "their" park land, and not when they show up on an area designated for someone's profit. Anyone who knows what happens in parks knows that life isn't this simple. There are constant issues with weeds, pests, and disturbance. Worse, mountain bikers and other people cause a fair amount of damage in parks, all the while insisting that they need more space for recreation. Still, it's the best we can do at the moment.

This isn't to say that rare species shouldn't be monitored or managed for, but as everyone found out with the South County MSCP, there aren't enough resources to do that for 85 species. It would be nice to have those resources, but that means either more taxes if you want to pay for the biologists' time, or you have to find a lot of qualified volunteers (you, perhaps?) and get them to do a lot of work for free. Still, the lack of resources is only one reason why we might not want the NCMSCP to over many more species. The other is that "no surprises" clauses. The NCMSCP is a take permit that gives developers the ability to kill sensitive plants and animals. Do we want to give them that blanket, "no surprises" permission for the next 50 years? I know the wildlife agencies are really struggling with that question, and I hope their counterparts in the County are as well.

What about just scrapping the MSCP, not covering any species? This might seem advantageous, because it would theoretically force all developers to do the studies, find out what sensitive species are on their pieces of land, report them, and mitigate any impacts, just as they will have to do for all species not covered by the NCMSCP. The problem is that this is a piecemeal effort, and it's hard to assemble a wildlife corridor out of multiple parcels when each parcel is an independent project, and there's no overarching plan to help them work together to assemble a corridor. That's assuming that the developers do a complete and honest biology report on each project, a questionable assumption.

So, I'm afraid, it's another complicated project, with no obvious, easy answers. To compound it, the steering committee has people representing developers, agriculture, and trail users as well, each of whom have their own interests.

What we do know is that, if there are no corridors, we're going to lose some populations, if not some species, as species are unable to migrate and find suitable habitat. We can help—a little—by giving plants and animals space in our yards, but unless you own a lot of land, your backyard plot can't house anything large for very long. Still, if we all do our part, perhaps we can find some sort of solution eventually. I do know it's going to take a while, because if there was a simple solution, they would have found it decades ago.