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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
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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Newhall Land may be trying to satisfy the traditional but outdated ”rocks and ice,“ or scenery-based, approach to conservation.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.

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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.

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