The Gods of Small Things | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
Loading...

The Gods of Small Things 

The Center for Biological Diversity cares as much about the unarmored threespine stickleback as it does a cathedral forest of trees, which is why it is reinventing the environmental movement and could be saving Southern California in the process.

Wednesday, Nov 20 2002
Comments

Teresa Savaikie slammed her Ford Escort to a halt on the parkway’s outside lane, near the spot where a chunky construction worker was hauling up water from a riverbed. Ignoring the blaring horns of outraged suburban motorists, the barefoot woman, blond and good-looking in a classic Southern California way, approached the worker.

“Don‘t you know there are fish in there?” she asked him.

“Yeah, I seen some fish,” he said.

“Well, you’re not supposed to be sucking them up with that hose,” she said.

“Hey, I‘m just working here. You don’t like it, call the city.”

She turned the full force of her blue, mascaraed eyes on the guy. “I need one of those fish. Do you have a cup or something?”

Savaikie and the fish, a small inconspicuous creature called arroyo chub, were about to become unlikely characters in an intense drama playing out in the hinterlands of Los Angeles County, one that may turn out to be the biggest environmental battle of the decade. When the curtain drops, we just might be left with a new definition of wilderness and a new approach to protecting it, or, failing that, a free pass for the kind of development that ignores it.

Mixing a soccer mom and an environmental activist together might not always seem like a recipe for a David Lynch movie, but it was in this case. Indeed, it‘s safe to say that when Teresa Savaikie got married and moved in 1999 from working-class Highland Park to the uber-suburb of Valencia, California, she had no intention of walking point for a Heidegger-quoting, Jesuit-fired, philosopher-turned-environmental iconoclast named Kieran Suckling. That was before she knew that the Newhall Land and Farming Company planned to build the largest housing development in Los Angeles County history on the banks of the Santa Clara River. The Santa Clara, which runs for 116 miles from Agua Dulce, a high-desert, Old West--feeling community 44 miles north of Los Angeles, to the Pacific, is the largest natural river left in Southern California. At a time when millions of dollars are being spent to restore some semblance of nature to the much-abused Los Angeles River, it looked like the Newhall Land and Farming Company was about to turn a tree-lined ribbon of water into a concrete garbage can.

For more than a decade, a small cadre of women -- old hippies, really -- had bucked business-as-usual by fighting development in this outlying suburb of Los Angeles. But they had been relying on the traditional argument that there wasn’t enough water to fill hot tubs and water lawns, working on the assumption that Southern California was still like the movie Chinatown. Their arguments may yet prove persuasive, but with that strange little fish and other odd animals she noticed in her very back yard, Savaikie came upon something even bigger -- her little corner of what could fairly be called a global holocaust.

As it happened, soon after she moved to Valencia, Savaikie saw a bizarre neon-orange-and-black bird outside her window. “I thought it had escaped from a cage,” she said, laughing. She watched the bird for a few days and realized her mistake. Her husband bought her an Audubon dictionary, where she found a picture of a hooded oriole that matched the creature darting among the palm trees in her neighborhood. “I wish I had never seen that damn bird,” she says now. “I went back to the store and got another book, it was called The Lives of North American Birds. It had the status of each bird. I realized all these birds were declining. The reason the book kept listing was ‘loss of habitat.’ Declining brown bird, declining this bird. Everything was declining.”

She also discovered that Valencia, a locked-down, affluent Republican suburb that looks custom-built for the mallified masses, is actually a pretty remarkable place. She found out, too, that a lot of what is remarkable about it happens right where Newhall Ranch is set to rise, along the banks of the Santa Clara River.

Life congregates around water, especially in arid and semiarid places like Southern California. Behind phalanxes of oil-seeping auto malls and Home Depots, five federally listed endangered species live on the stretch of the Santa Clara River that runs through Los Angeles County. Their names alone help explain why few knew about them: the unarmored threespine stickleback, the arroyo toad, the Least Bell‘s vireo, the southwestern willow flycatcher and the slender-horned spineflower.

As an ecosystem, the Santa Clara River is no joke. From the river’s headwaters to its outlet at the Pacific, you can find 10 species of plants and animals on the federal endangered-species list, and these are just the plants and animals that someone cared about enough to badger the federal government into protecting. For example, in San Francisquito Creek that day, Savaikie and her construction-worker helper captured an arroyo chub, a rare fish that doesn‘t receive federal protection but has been given special status by the state of California.

Although the Newhall Land Company hadn’t yet received final approval for Newhall Ranch, it was quietly amputating the Santa Clara and its tributaries, filling in wetlands, building new wells, and pouring concrete to control natural flooding. In smaller subdivisions with names like Avignon and Bridgeport, megahouses were being constructed up to the water‘s edge. Savaikie worked the phones, telling her story to brand-name environmental groups like the National Audubon Society. They sympathized, but claimed they didn’t have the time or money to fight development in every sprawling suburb. And while they gave lip service to protecting endangered species, they didn‘t get excited about an obscure toad or a 3-inch fish with a weird name. “They kept asking, ’Did you talk to the Center for Biological Diversity?‘” Savaikie said.

That the Center for Biological Diversity would be anyone’s idea of a savior belies its roots, which are low-budget and iconoclastic even by environmental-group standards. A dozen years before it would set its sights on Savaikie‘s fight with Newhall Ranch, the Center’s founder, Kieran Suckling, had taken a similarly dramatic left turn. Suckling was in his early 20s, a scruffy intellectual who had been ricocheting around the country on graduate fellowships studying everything from linguistics to mathematics at Stanford, Columbia, UC Irvine and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. In the summer of 1989, at a gathering of the radical environmental group Earth First! in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico, Suckling met a fast-talking biologist-cum-politico named Peter Galvin who was studying the precarious existence of the spotted owl in New Mexico‘s Gila National Forest for the U.S. Forest Service. The meeting with Suckling would prove to be fateful, not just for the two young environmentalists, but for the environmental movement at large.

If the Forest Service knew Galvin better, they might not have been so quick to hire him fresh out of Prescott College in northern Arizona. He is dogged and his interests haven’t changed much since bulldozers ripped into the woods behind his house where he used to play cowboys and Indians. “That was the beginning of the high-tech boom on Route 128 outside Boston,” he says. “The pace of sprawl was just unbelievable. For a lot of people in my generation the pace of destruction has been so rapid you‘d have to be comatose not to notice.” Galvin didn’t have to work hard to convince Suckling that the Mexican spotted owl should be more vocation than vacation. Having researched the raptor at Prescott College, he knew the owl was in danger of dying out. The studies he and Suckling worked on that summer helped prove it. Galvin, who had been an Earth First! activist as a college student, wanted to do something right away, file papers to get the owl protected under the federal endangered-species act, stage a protest, something.

Think bigger, Suckling told Galvin. Over the next 18 months, Suckling and Galvin pulled all-nighters at the University of New Mexico library in Albuquerque, gathering evidence that at least 100 species of plants and animals were facing extinction in the high country surrounding the Gila River watershed, a 70,000-plus-square-mile region stretching from western New Mexico to the Mexican border. In the shadowed folds of New Mexico‘s canyon country, Suckling and Galvin stumbled onto a phenomenon that fused the aesthetic, scientific and political arguments of traditional conservation around a hard truth: extinction.

For these two, it was a small step from the Gila a National Forest to global holocaust. The species circling the drain in New Mexico, were, in fact, only a small part of what scientists everywhere were calling an extinction episode rivaling the end of the dinosaur age. The first hints of an extinction crisis had come in the 1980s, when supercomputers allowed biologists to understand entire landscapes rather than a lagoon here or a forest there. As the studies racked up, they realized that the sixth major extinction episode in four and a half billion years of evolution was under way.

It was no coincidence that the appearance of an unfamiliar bird spurred Teresa Savaikie to learn about extinction. She had grown up in a world in which one-fifth of the world’s bird species had already died out. The birds were a portent, the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. E.O. Wilson of Harvard and other scientists predict that an equal proportion of the world‘s other species are likely to disappear over the next 30 to 50 years. To see the future, all one has to do is look south: Extinctions in rainforests already have increased to between 1,000 and 10,000 times the usual rate of one species per 1 million species a year. Of the world’s six great extinctions, this is the first caused by humans. The murder weapons are as varied as contemporary life, from unregulated logging in the Ivory Coast to metastasizing condominiums in Florida.

Spurred by the urgency of extinction, Suckling and Galvin began a conversation that has continued almost without interruption for 13 years. Suckling has become the conceptual thinker behind the Center for Biological Diversity, keeping track of a dense library of information and making connections that turn seemingly isolated cases into big-picture causes. Galvin is more a concrete strategist, politically adept and always fascinated by the quirky habits of pink fish and red-legged frogs.

Suckling and Galvin started slowly at first, filing a petition in 1989 to list the Mexican spotted owl on the endangered-species list, and then one to protect the Northern goshawk in 1991. After that came the deluge: 58 frighteningly well-researched petitions to list everything from an orchid called the Canelo Hills ladies‘ tresses to the yellow-billed cuckoo. Unfortunately, their tsunami of petitions landed inside the Beltway just when the Clinton administration was trying to sort through hundreds of previously neglected endangered-species listing petitions approved by the first Bush in his final days. To complicate matters, Republicans had gained a majority in Congress in 1994. Industry-friendly politicians from the West, where the majority of high-stakes endangered-species conflicts were brewing, started whittling away at the Endangered Species Act. Many in Congress threatened to rewrite the law so dramatically that it would become virtually impossible to protect species.

Soon Suckling and Galvin’s combination of full-on energy and political naivete -- with a soupcon of arrogance -- infuriated people across the political compass. Critics ranged from New Mexico cattlemen to then--Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, who was struggling to change a pattern of misuse of federal lands without being run out of town on a rail by Old West right-wingers.

“There‘s no question that Kieran and Peter were viewed as huge pains in the rear end,” says Don Barry, who was Babbitt’s assistant secretary of the interior at the time. “They were totally upending and reorganizing the Fish and Wildlife Service priorities, imposing their own sense of priorities based on what the grassroots groups wanted when we were dealing with national priorities. They kept hitting the accelerator with us.”

Nobody would have paid attention to the guys‘ frenetic paper shuffling if it hadn’t been for the one characteristic that truly annoyed the bureaucrats: an ability to win in court that seemed almost uncanny. But there was nothing magical about it. The agency charged with protecting most endangered species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has traditionally been weak and underfunded. Once the extinction crisis hit, the beleaguered bureaucrats were simply unable to keep up. For Suckling and Galvin, the legal possibilities seemed inexhaustible. There were lawsuits forcing the agency to list species, lawsuits against the agency for missing deadlines (sometimes by decades), lawsuits to force the agency to actually protect the species it had listed but then ignored.

They might not have known it at the time, but by moving the battlefield from the lobbying halls of Capitol Hill to courtrooms, Suckling and Galvin were leaving their counterparts in the dust by simply catching up with political realities. These days, corporate contributions to candidates outpace those from do-gooder organizations such as the Sierra Club by more than 50-to-1. Congress is no longer friendly to environmental legislation; only one major environmental law had passed since the ‘70s, the relatively non-controversial Safe Drinking Water Act. With strong laws already in place, and increasingly complex debates that didn’t scan with the general public, the best bet now is using the courts to enforce environmental laws to the hilt, supported by increasingly sophisticated scientific research.

The Endangered Species Act is widely regarded as the nation‘s strongest environmental law. Suckling and Galvin were among the first environmentalists to wield the law as an assault weapon instead of a rapier. The Center relentlessly hounded the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect endangered species and their habitat, regardless of the threat of political fallout.

In environmental lawyer Mark Hughes, Galvin and Suckling found just what they needed. Hughes had tried for years to convince his colleagues at the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (now Earthjustice) to bust a move on the Mexican spotted owl. When no action came, he resigned in disgust and founded his own law firm. Galvin, who had a master’s degree in conservation biology, but who is the son of a lawyer, begged, cajoled and charmed Hughes into working for what he and Suckling had taken to calling the Greater Gila Biodiversity Project.

Hughes won an injunction that stopped logging for 18 months on 2.4 million acres of national forests. A judge ordered the U.S. Forest Service to spend that time figuring out how many trees it could cut down without hurting the Mexican spotted owl. It turned out to be a lot less than the Forest Service had in mind. Logging on national forests in Arizona and New Mexico declined 84 percent from 1989 to 2001; much of this shift can be attributed to legal strong-arming by the Center for Biological Diversity, as the group began calling itself.

The Mexican spotted owl case started one of the longest winning streaks in the history of the environmental movement. In a dozen years, the Center for Biological Diversity, which moved to Tucson, Arizona, in 1995, won 80 percent of its cases, roughly twice the rate of most environmental law firms, gaining protection for 288 species in 44 states. It has changed the way 38 million acres are managed in the American West, ended cattle grazing along hundreds of miles of fragile desert rivers, slowed the sprawl of subdivisions, and reduced logging from Alaska to Arizona. Because they deal in protecting plants and animals and because loss of habitat is the most common cause of extinction, the Center has become a one-stop shopping outlet, suing on everything from big dams to the expansion of military installations.

It may sound elementary to make species protection the main thrust of protecting the environment, but, in fact, the Center was making a radical departure from old-line male environmentalists who cared more about conquering mountains than nurturing warm fuzzy animals. Heather Weiner, a Washington, D.C.--based environmentalist, says that until the Center came along, practically the only people aggressively lobbying for endangered species were tough women like her who did battle on the Hill dressed in short skirts and armed with attitude.

Washington, D.C., environmental attorney Eric Glitzenstein, who has litigated on behalf of the Center, believes the group has almost single-handedly pushed endangered-species protection to center stage, edging out more familiar but less pressing issues like pollution, where the big battles have mostly been won. Fearless was the word that kept coming up when Nathaniel Lawrence of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) -- a more conservative Washington, D.C.--based conservation group that also specializes in science and litigation -- talked about the Center for Biological Diversity. “They are, pound for pound, dollar for dollar, the most effective conservation organization in the country,” Lawrence says.

The Center for Biological Diversity‘s rise came at a time when the environmental movement as a whole had lost its footing. The late 1980s and early 1990s were a confusing time for progressive politics in general and above-ground environmentalists in particular. Many environmentalists found themselves wondering what the hell was wrong in their world. “Who’s the next David Brower?” was the question asked over and over in rambling phone calls and buzzed late-night, drunken agonizing.

In the 1960s, Brower, the legendary Sierra Club director and “archdruid” profiled by The New Yorker‘s John McPhee, had democratized the elitist wilderness movement, lobbying Congress with theatrical flourishes and taking on issues like nuclear power that lay outside the stodgy movement’s traditional purview. Brower, who was both a creative genius and a towering egoist, attracted a talented lineup to the environmental movement that has not been matched since. He set loose adman Jerry Mander and world-class photographers like Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter to shape the marketing iconography of an idealized America: the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone.

But as environmental groups became institutions with big budgets, they grew vulnerable to the cyclical nature of the public‘s interest in environmental issues. To support larger staffs and higher overhead through lean times, big groups like the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society had to rely on the whims of rich patrons and the fads of fickle foundations. They became hesitant to offend friends and enemies alike. Once the province of visionaries, environmentalism became the domain of political lobbyists whose only philosophy was pragmatism.

As it turned out, the environmental movement didn’t need another David Brower. It needed a 21st-century Arthur Rimbaud, the tousled, dirty prodigy whose only interest in convention was flouting it. Rimbaud reinvented poetry. Kieran Suckling would do the same with environmentalism.

You wouldn‘t have known it to see him in action in the early days. Ten years ago, the eminence grise behind the Center for Biological Diversity was in a smack-induced stupor in British Columbia, doing field research on the heroin habits of out-of-work loggers. Logical enough, maybe. Suckling thought he should know the culture in which he was working. The environmental movement, with its quasi-religious overtones, is prone to anointing epic heroes for its epic battles. In those days, Kieran Suckling was probably not at the top of anyone’s list as most likely to be anointed. Paradoxically, it may be just this willingness to go beyond normal limits that helped him become the first truly original thinker that the movement has seen in decades.

Suckling grew up in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Peru, Ireland and England. His mother is Irish and his father is English, a civil engineer whose work on power plants and pulp mills ensured a peripatetic existence. His parents divorced when he was 12. His loyalties swung to his mother, whom he describes as “a pagan Catholic.” Suckling says his mother keeps not only a lock of a sainted aunt‘s hair but also dirt from her grave, and she prays fervently to an up-close-and-personal Virgin Mary.

This otherworldly bent was not lost on her son. When one of Suckling’s many Jesuit uncles returned from a missionary stint in Africa with a hard-to-shake tropical disease, he bequeathed his philosophy books to the impressionable teenager. As an undergraduate at Holy Cross College, Suckling discovered he loved philosophy and befriended Joe Lawrence, a philosophy professor.

“He‘s intense, he’s energetic, he‘s creative,” said Lawrence. “A very interesting question is what in the hell was Kieran Suckling doing at a Catholic school.

”If you think of the Grand Inquisitor chapter in The Brothers Karamazov, which was Dostoyevsky’s critique of the Jesuits, it makes sense. The Jesuit is the one who realizes that Christ should have accepted the Devil‘s offer to turn stone into bread -- he could have fed the hungry. He should have accepted the offer to make a magical display of his power and reformed the world.

“That desire for achieving a humanly made perfect world, that’s the Jesuit desire,” said Lawrence.

Suckling took up phenomenology, the study of direct experience. He studied linguistics and the deconstruction theory that was ubiquitous in the academy. His conversation is peppered with references to mainstream philosophers like Aristotle and Heidegger, but edgier characters like the French-Algerian philosopher Jacques Derrida, a coyote trickster whose work suggests that meaning is ever-shifting and relational, clearly have influenced him.

Suckling didn‘t just study experience. He hurled himself into it. You could say he transcended ethics in favor of Kierkegaardian intensity. He became an industrial-strength shoplifter and all-around grifter, not an illogical lifestyle for a perpetual student from a financially strapped family. Orgies, anarchism and the occasional arrest were de rigueur in the radical environmental movement. Suckling navigated the underworld with apparent ease. When he came back into the mainstream, it would be to fight for the very definition of wilderness.

That fight began with William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin, who is considered one of the environmental movement’s leading intellectuals. For years, Cronon has been vocal about his belief that wilderness is a mere intellectual construct. Many rank-and-file environmentalists, drawn to the movement by their quasi-religious fervor for the tangibility of the outdoors, found Cronon‘s ideas horrifying. At the very least, Cronon’s announcement (tantamount to saying “God is dead”) was spectacularly poor strategy -- especially since he made it rather publicly in The New York Times Magazine in mid-1995, when the newly empowered Republican congressional majority was taking a run at the country‘s basic environmental laws, with a special emphasis on the Endangered Species Act. Cronon’s article, or at least its timing, seemed to characterize the anemia and disarray plaguing the movement.

To Suckling, Cronon‘s ideas seemed outdated, hopelessly pre-postmodern. “This is where I take issue with Cronon and Nash [Roderick Nash, author of Wilderness and the American Mind],” says Suckling. “Because Cronon and Nash want to write a biography of wilderness, they have to come up with a concept of wilderness.

”In fact,“ Suckling contends, ”wilderness is antithetical to concept itself. It’s where you go to get rid of your concepts. That‘s what I mean when I say wilderness deconstructs us. It’s comforting because you realize you don‘t need to be in control.“

Today, Suckling runs an organization of 30 employees, raises a multimillion-dollar budget, cuts deals with Bush’s Interior secretary, Gale Norton, and defends the environmental position on CNN‘s Crossfire. He also puts up with occasional hostility from the media -- The Wall Street Journal editorial page in particular. He’s not afraid to show that under the Lamborghini brain is a nice Irish Catholic boy from Massachusetts. He still refutes Cronon, for lack of a better opponent. But his argument is subtly different. At 37, he talks less about philosophical ambiguity and more about morality.

”Nature isn‘t moral,“ says Suckling. ”It’s our relationship to nature that‘s moral. A human’s engagement with the world is always moral, religious and aesthetic. Heidegger talks about wissen and kennen as words for knowledge: wife and husband. This is more a notion of a caring spouse. A rabbi, Emmanuel Levinas, defines it as the experience of meeting the face. It‘s the face that says to you, ’Thou shalt not kill.‘ It’s the relationship.“

When the Center began its spectacular run of lawsuits, suit-and-tie environmentalists worried that a take-no-prisoners assault would give the congressional Republicans an excuse to gut the Endangered Species Act. Those concerns are perhaps elevated now with Republicans owning the House and Senate. Michael Bean, of the Washington, D.C.--based Environmental Defense, which works with corporations to find common ground, is one who believes the Center‘s aggressive stance could inspire equally aggressive retaliation from opponents.

”They’ve been successful in getting a lot of species on the endangered-species list,“ says Bean. ”I think that, by itself, doesn‘t ensure a result that will endure. My view is that lasting solutions to environmental problems require some substantial degree of buy-in from the people who are affected by those decisions. There are just too many ways for disaffected people to undo a particular environmental result.“

The Jesuit steel in Suckling, though, remains fired by his absolute conviction that the unprepossessing scrap of habitat for an endangered rat near a highway is as important as a million-acre national forest of cathedral trees. He understood what the professional environmentalists didn’t. It‘s fairly simple, really: People like animals.

Northern California is better-known for its groovy environmental ethic, but Southern California’s roller-coaster landscape of high mountains and sun-blasted valleys, combined with a forgiving Mediterranean climate, has created a near-perfect petri dish for evolution and natural diversity. That‘s why Mark Gold, of Heal the Bay in Santa Monica, calls Southern California ”the endangered-species capital of the nation.“

The hitch is that Southern California’s population, now 19 million, is expected to rise 49 percent over the next 30 years. The population of San Bernardino and Riverside counties, the edge habitat between the mountains and the city, is expected to grow even more dramatically, doubling to 6 million by 2025.

”It‘s a pretty volatile situation,“ said the NRDC’s Lawrence. ”I‘d draw a parallel between the situation in Southern California and the fight over the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest 15 years ago.“

The Newhall Land and Farming Company intends to do its part to make sure California’s population growth comes in on schedule. The company calls the nearly 22,000-home, 60,000-resident city it plans to build Newhall Ranch. Like so many of those evocative names given to nouveau suburbia, this one has a checkered past. A San Francisco auctioneer, some would say carpetbagger, named Henry Mayo Newhall bought the land at bargain-basement prices when its Californio owners ran into tax troubles. The 143,000-acre Del Valle land grant became Newhall Ranch in the 1870s.

Newhall Land is a local behemoth. Aside from the proposed Newhall Ranch development, it controls more than 50,000 acres in the state, including L.A. County‘s largest industrial park, the 4,500-acre Gateway Center. The company, which started the town of Valencia, develops master-planned communities, which it then sells off piecemeal to real estate developers, so the actual landholdings have diminished over time. Company spokeswoman Marlee Lauffer downplays the company’s influence, saying Newhall Land only owns 25 percent of the town of Valencia, ”but we‘ve generated 70 percent of the jobs and sales tax.“ Everybody else in town readily admits that Newhall has ruled over this part of Los Angeles County for a century, in much the same way as the Spanish hacendados who preceded it.

What’s striking is how much rural character remains where Newhall Land wants to develop. Once you leave Valencia, you enter an earlier time, California‘s past as limned by California historian Kevin Starr. The old, elegant Rancho Camulos, once the home of the Del Valles and reputedly the inspiration for Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1885 novel Ramona, is now a museum sheltered beneath an imposing mountain range. It is as if a time machine threatens to fast-forward from the 1800s to the 21st century, landing this shard of Old California smack in the middle of a Disney theme park Levittown. Only with this machine, there is no going back.

Newhall Land‘s long history in the region may be one reason the company is behind the curve on urban planning. According to Lauffer, its development approach is based on the post--World War II designs of architect Victor Gruen, whom Newhall hired to design its utopian suburban villages.

Gruen, who designed the country’s first enclosed mall, was more of an architect than ”one of the fathers of new urbanism,“ as the company likes to bill him. His ideas predate any notion of what is now called sustainable development. For instance, Gruen clustered houses and commercial development around the Santa Clara River, the way Indians and early settlers settled on rivers in the early days of the West. Today, New Urbanist model cities like Boise, Idaho, and Madison, Wisconsin, are designed to take into account the fragility and value of river corridors by protecting them as natural open space, usually with bike paths and meandering trails.

Of course, when it comes to the old-fashioned civic virtues, Lauffer points out that the company has donated land for the hospital, the city center and the local branch of the county library. Newhall also guarantees funds for school construction, Lauffer said. What she failed to mention was that the Sierra Club, the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment and a local homeowner‘s association sued the company in 1993 to force them to provide those guarantees. In any case, few would argue with the proposition that, one way or another, Newhall Land has created a place where a lot of people want to live. But the company’s sense of noblesse oblige doesn‘t appear to extend to the environment. Recently, the California Department of Fish and Game officials accused Newhall Land of deliberately breaking environmental laws in its efforts to ensure approval for its sprawling new development.

In May, state Fish and Game investigator Penelope Liotta filed a search-warrant request alleging that Newhall had deliberately destroyed habitat for a state-listed endangered species called the San Fernando Valley spineflower by grading vegetation and planting agaves on the site of a road planned for Newhall Ranch.

”It is my opinion that NLF [Newhall Land and Farming Company] is using the idea of an agave farm as a ruse to justify the systematic destruction of habitat that is consistent with SFVS [spineflower] habitat requirements,“ Liotta wrote. Liotta requested a search warrant because Newhall Land had consistently denied biologists access to search for endangered species on their land.a

Documents indicate that this isn’t the first time the company has covered up evidence of endangered species on its property. Biological consultant Louis Courtois reported in the 1994 edition of the California Natural Diversity Database that arroyo toads lived in sections of the Santa Clara River owned by Newhall Land. In 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the toad on the endangered-species list, stating that 75 percent of its habitat had been lost, and of the 22 remaining populations, only six had more than a dozen toads.

This wasn‘t surprising, given the state of Southern California’s rivers. The arroyo toad, which exists only in Southern California and Baja, survives by burrowing into the loose sand of riverbanks. Arroyo toads cannot penetrate the soil-cement mix that is commonly used when developers want to build houses without leaving a buffer sufficient to protect them from natural flooding.

In 1999, after being hired by Newhall Land, Courtois reported to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that he had not found any arroyo toads in company-sponsored surveys in 1995 and 1999. This letter failed to mention the results he had reported in 1994.

Teresa Savaikie says the company‘s own environmental-impact report, required under California law, showed that the toad had been found under a major traffic artery, McBean Parkway, in 1996. Yet in 1998, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed off on a management plan for the river and its tributaries that did not mention the presence of the arroyo toad. Neither Courtois nor Newhall Land admitted that the toad had been found in the river until local environmentalists hired their own biologist, who confirmed that the toads lived in the Santa Clara.

Did the company break the law? Landowners have a legal obligation not to ”take“ or harm the habitat the species needs to survive, said Rick Farris, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service. Newhall’s activities in the Santa Clara River and its tributaries might fall within that definition. It would be difficult to prove in court, but it‘s hard to believe that Courtois, who failed to return a reporter’s phone calls for this article, didn‘t inform his client that an endangered species lived on their property. Lauffer, meanwhile, contends the river-management plan has already established what Newhall Land is allowed to do on the river. ”All of this is kind of moot, all this about frogs and toads,“ she said.

Federal wildlife officials don’t agree. Because the arroyo toad was not included in the river‘s management plan, agencies are now reviewing the plan to determine if it meets state and federal laws, said Farris. The river-management plan is one of the keys to building the Newhall Ranch development, as well as many smaller developments in the Santa Clara Valley. It basically sets the parameters for everything Newhall Land and other developers can do along the river.

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.

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.

”They will change the game,“ said John Buse of the Environmental Defense Center in Ventura, which has represented the Center in several cases. ”They’ve brought a new perspective to the battle against sprawl. Even more than that, they‘re bringing the reality of the extinction crisis home to Southern Californians.“

Related Content

Now Trending

Los Angeles Concert Tickets