By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Newhall’s public relations materials attempt to depict a company that has become sensitive to its critics. Lauffer points out that Newhall Land‘s master-planned communities have always contained open space as an amenity. The Newhall Ranch development would cover 19 square miles west of Magic Mountain and include 5.7 million square feet of commercial and business space inside five ”villages.“ The plan also calls for 6,000 acres of open space. But nearly all of this ”open space“ is in the mountains that loom over the proposed new city. This steep terrain would be difficult or impossible to develop.
Newhall Land may be trying to satisfy the traditional but outdated ”rocks and ice,“ or scenery-based, approach to conservation. The problem, though, is that approach has been one of the factors leading to the current extinction crisis. In the last 20 years, scientists have stressed that rivers and valleys, which contain more food and cover for animals, are often more valuable than the scenic high country traditionally preserved in parks. But to Lauffer, science is eclipsed by one incontrovertible fact. ”We actually own the river,“ she points out.
Newhall Land and Farming Company may own the Santa Clara, but Teresa Savaikie has adopted the river as her own. ”One reporter called me Erin Brockovich without the cleavage,“ Savaikie says ruefully.
Savaikie enumerates the sins committed by Newhall Land with the zeal of a convert. Indeed, her political activism is of an even more recent vintage than her love for nature. In the summer of 2000, Teresa was walking along San Francisquito Creek looking for warblers when she ran across a forest of tall poles with speakers mounted at the top. ”You know those speakers at the old drive-ins? That’s what they looked like.“
When she returned after a July 4th weekend, Newhall Land had cleared the creek of willows and cattails to make way for a housing development. Savaikie placed a few calls and found out that the drive-in movie speakers were called hazing machines, meant to fool birds into thinking a predator was nearby in order to frighten them away. That way the company could claim it wasn‘t disturbing any endangered species, like the local Least Bell’s vireo.
”They knew they could get away with it because when all these projects came along, nobody knew anything about endangered species. The developers knew but we didn‘t,“ said Savaikie.
For months she had been calling Peter Galvin, who had moved to Garberville, in Northern California. Galvin hadn’t returned her phone calls. Finally, in desperation, she e-mailed another environmentalist who had shown some interest in her problems. He agreed to talk to Galvin for her.
Galvin finally called. ”I was absolutely floored,“ Savaikie said. ”I felt like God had called or something.“ It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship -- and a spate of lawsuits. First, Galvin got the hazing machines removed. Then he found out Newhall Land had successfully lobbied to get its Newhall Ranch and other development sites taken off what is called ”critical habitat“ for the arroyo toad and another endangered species, a fish called the unarmored threespine stickleback. To date, the Center has eight lawsuits that could affect Newhall Land and Farming Company. ”Whenever Teresa gets upset now, she gets Peter and has a conference call,“ says longtime Valencia environmentalist Lynne Plambeck.
Newhall Land finally began to feel the pressure. For several years, Plambeck and other community activists had been trying to stop Newhall Ranch by arguing that there wouldn‘t be enough water to meet the needs of 60,000 new residents. Over their protests, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors had approved the Newhall Ranch project in 1999.
But the next year, a Kern County judge halted the project until Newhall could prove it had enough water for the 22,000 homes, as well as business and industrial facilities envisioned for the new city. After the judge’s decision, supervisors delayed a new hearing on the development until early 2003. If the company manages to nail down a water supply for Newhall Ranch, it will face a fresh round of opposition. Endangered-species lawsuits will be the only way to force Newhall Land to tailor its development to the needs of toads and birds and obscure flowers that live along the Santa Clara River.
”Without Peter Galvin we wouldn‘t have a clue about the [Endangered Species Act],“ said Savaikie. ”Without the Center, we wouldn’t have a prayer.“
The Center for Biological Diversity recently bought two buildings in Idyllwild to be closer to the ragged edge of sprawl in Southern California, its next hot spot. Not that the Center is an unproven entity in California. Back in 1990, a 20-year-old Center wunderkind named Dave Hogan petitioned to add the California gnatcatcher to the federal list of threatened species, which, under the law, provides it almost equal protection as endangered species. The Natural Resources Defense Council followed up with its legal firepower, and before long, the small, blue-gray bird was on the front page of The New York Times as the showpiece of Bruce Babbitt‘s innovative approach to endangered-species conservation. Babbitt hoped to head off the upcoming ”train wreck“ between the gnatcatcher and booming development in San Diego with something called a habitat-conservation plan, which allowed a certain amount of destruction to occur in exchange for protection in other places. The San Diego plan would eventually cover more than half a million acres and ostensibly protect 85 species. A similar plan covers most of Orange County. In San Pedro, a smaller swath of land is being managed to protect the Palos Verde blue butterfly, among other species.
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