Desert Sun, December 21, 2013
Our Voice: Saving the species
"As the nation marks the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, the Coachella Valley is doing its part"
It all started with a lizard.
The Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard, a creature unique to our desert, was added to the federal endangered species list in 1980. The lizard, which grows to 6 to 9 inches, thrives in our sand dunes. The fringes on its wide feet give it traction to dart through blowsand areas. It can “swim” into the sand to hide from predators and protect itself from the sun.
It once enjoyed 270 square miles of sand dune habitat. But over the years, houses and streets have wiped out most of that. Only about 19 square miles remain.
In 1985, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the 3,709-acre Coachella Valley National Wildlife Refuge to protect the lizard. Faced with the prospect of lawsuits from environmental groups, the Coachella Valley Association of Governments stepped up to create a long-term plan to preserve more habitat. Working with the Nature Conservancy and other groups, CVAG created a valleywide plan instead of letting individual cities negotiate with developers on a piecemeal basis.
Completed in 1986, it was the nation’s second habitat conservation plan, as Rancho Mirage Mayor Richard Kite points out in his column on this page.
The cooperative approach worked well and became the model for the larger Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan, adopted in 2008.
As we approach the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon signing the Endangered Species Act on Saturday, The Desert Sun salutes this as a great example of how smart regional government can bring divergent interests together to find sensible solutions.
The Endangered Species Act
Many consider the publication of “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson in 1962 as the beginning of the modern environmental movement. The book alleged that widespread use of DDT and other pesticides was killing birds and other animals, and posed a threat to humans. A skeptical scientific community called Carson’s charges “subversive.”
President John F. Kennedy directed his Science Advisory Committee to investigate her claims. Carson was vindicated and stronger pesticide regulations were instituted. From that point on, environmentalists took a harder look at man’s impact on nature.
Of more than 1,500 species listed as endangered, only 10 have been declared extinct. Eight of them are now believed to have been extinct before they were listed. A 2006 study estimated that without the act, 227 species would have joined the dodo bird and passenger pigeon on the gone-forever list.
The Fish and Wildlife Service says 26 species have recovered and been taken off the list, including the grizzly bear, the bald eagle and the California Southern Sea Otter. Another 25 have been moved from “endangered” to “threatened.”
Our Habitat Conservation Plan
Under the Coachella Valley plan, developers in all nine cities and the county pay the same rate to expand protected habitat — $5,600 per acre for commercial or industrial development and $1,254 per acre for up to eight units in affected areas. The 75-year plan is estimated to raise $2.2 billion to balance growth and the environment and protect 240,000 acres.
Desert Hot Springs initially declined to participate in the plan because it would have blocked a major development. When the project faltered, the city and the Mission Springs Water District joined the effort. The city has already paid $310,000 to join, so it’s not at risk of dropping out because of the current fiscal crisis.
That’s good, because this plan works best when the entire valley participates. Because of habitat conservation, we’ll never see wall-to-wall houses between the developed part of Palm Springs and Interstate 10.
And we will still continue to see the majestic bighorn sheep, the desert tortoise and the Coachella Valley milk vetch. Sightings of the fringe-toed lizard will remain rare, but nearly 3,000 of them are still darting around in the sand. It’s good to know they’re there.
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