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
In Idyllwild, the Center’s newly hired lawyers, Brendan Cummings and Kassie Siegel, work at the epicenter of the battle over Southern California‘s last shreds of wildlife habitat. Cummings, Siegel and staff biologist Monica Bond are going where no national-level environmentalists have gone before -- to turgid, mind-numbingly dull local planning and zoning board meetings. So far, the Center has run into the same kind of labor-intensive cases with nickel-and-dime outcomes that made the big national environmental groups shy away. Last year, the Center’s lawyers sued over Oak Valley, a proposed 4,400-home development in Riverside County between I-10 and the 60 freeway. They didn‘t stop the development, but they forced the developer to reduce the size of the project, preserve wetlands, and set aside a wildlife migration corridor for mountain lions and black bears.
”We didn’t stop it, but we made it better,“ says Siegel. ”Unfortunately, that‘s been the history of land-use law.“
According to Siegel, the Center is determined to change history by flat out stopping development on 647 acres of Lytle Creek near the Cajon Pass in unincorporated San Bernardino County. Lytle Creek, the lower end of an intermittent canyon stream that flows down from the San Bernardino Mountains, is an illicit dumping ground for trash. Growing around the old tires and broken couches is a patch of perilously rare sage and riverbed habitat for the San Bernardino kangaroo rat, which is on the federal endangered-species list, and the California gnatcatcher. Lytle Creek is the unprepossessing face of 21st-century environmentalism, at least in the U.S. With the extinction crisis overriding picture-post-card views of nature, vacant lots outside sprawling suburbs have become the new militarized zone.
As it tries to block the transformation of Jack London’s rough-hewn California into just another modern convenience, it sometimes seems as if the Center is trying to stop time itself. Occasionally, they succeed not only in stopping time, but turning it back. This is most evident in the Center‘s impact on federal lands in California, where the political power of the state’s real estate developers is not factor. A 1998 lawsuit over the Angeles, Los Padres, Cleveland and San Bernardino national forests forced the U.S. Forest Service to take into account the needs of newly listed endangered species, such as the arroyo toad. That resulted in a whole raft of actions, including closing areas to off-road vehicles, restricting mining and grazing, and even retrofitting power lines so condors wouldn‘t get electrocuted when they perched on them.
In the gnarly Charlie Manson outback of the Southern California desert, another Center lawsuit closed 50,000 acres of the Algodones Dunes to off-road vehicles. The Center is currently litigating over the management of the 25-million-acre California Desert Conservation Area, which stretches from the Mexican border almost to Mono Lake. A lawsuit on behalf of 24 endangered species already has forced federal agencies to close off millions of acres in the desert-conservation area to mining, grazing and roads.
If that sounds like a lot, it is. Almost half of the state of California’s 163,707 square miles are under litigation brought by the Center for Biological Diversity.
But Galvin says there is something about the Newhall Ranch that feels different, riskier perhaps, with powerful, entrenched opposition and a lot at stake because of the river‘s biological importance.
”We’ve never been involved in an issue where we haven‘t felt we’ve made a big difference,“ Galvin said. ”But, as my grandmother would say, we got big tsuris. When we get involved in something, we like to get results and get results fast and get lots of results. The whole Santa Clara River issue is our toughest issue to date. I feel like we‘re up against this unstoppable juggernaut. Well, not unstoppable, but . . .“
But maybe. A recent court decision favoring the National Association of Homebuilders that rescinded protection for 4.1 million acres of habitat for the red-legged frog in California -- protection won by the Center -- is evidence that the business community has begun to turn the Center’s innovative legal approach against it, lending some credence, perhaps, to Bean‘s argument against the Center’s tactics. For his part, Galvin is acutely aware that the Center for Biological Diversity‘s $1.8 annual million budget is infinitesimal compared to the power and money of Southern California’s real estate developers. What the Center may have on its side is something less easily quantifiable.
Dodie Hoffman is wheeling her daughter‘s stroller through the faux New England village called Bridgeport when Teresa Savaikie stops her car to talk. Hoffman says she is shocked to hear that the Newhall Land and Farming Company may have violated the Endangered Species Act. She is equally disturbed to learn that her gated community may be harming coyotes and funny little toads by pumping groundwater to fill its tacky postmodern ode-to-Venice concrete-lined canal. ”I was told that they were protected, the animals. That’s what the builder told us. We were told that many times,“ Hoffman says, pausing in her promenade down Bridgeport‘s impeccably manicured sidewalk. Hoffman probably never heard the word phenomenology. She might not care that this obscure discipline has created a new kind of environmental politics. But she would understand if Kieran Suckling told her that his definition of wilderness is the split second when an owl lights on a branch and locks his gaze on yours.
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