Santa Barbara city officials strenuously objected to a federal proposal to designate a 1.8-mile stretch of the downtown waterfront—ranging from the Bird Refuge to West Beach—as critical habitat for the snowy plover—a migratory shore bird on the federal endangered species list, arguing such a decision could have potentially devastating consequences for the city’s multimillion-dollar tourist trade. “We do not agree that the heavily urbanized Santa Barbara waterfront is the appropriate location for proactive efforts for recovery of this species,” wrote City Planner Bettie Weiss in a letter sent to Fish and Wildlife Service officials last week.
In her letter, Weiss pointed out that the waterfront—now home to a working harbor, two volleyball arenas, a bike path, a weekly art show, and all kinds of special events—draws more than one million visitors annually. This traffic, in turn, fuels an economic engine that churns out $12 million a year for City Hall in the form of various taxes—roughly one-eighth the city’s General Fund. “Many of the activities supporting species recovery,” Weiss wrote, “would directly conflict with the existing urban and recreational land uses on the waterfront,” adding, “it would be extremely difficult to possibly restrict access to hundreds of thousands of beach goers a year.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service included Santa Barbara’s waterfront as critical habitat in March as part of an expansive new recovery plan to improve the snowy plover’s chances of reproductive survival. The new plan, which encompasses the Pacific Coast from the top of Washington to the bottom of California, is more than twice as big as the previous plan—discarded in the face of a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity. A substantial part of that gain was included to compensate for the loss of habitat anticipated because of climate change. That’s certainly a first for Santa Barbara County. And, according to Jim Watkins of the Fish and Wildlife Service, it might be a first anywhere. The new map was drawn anticipating that sea levels along the Pacific could rise anywhere from one to three meters by the end of the century. Watkins added that only a portion of the expansion can be attributed to climate change. The rest, he said, resulted from improved mapping techniques.
The actual impact of such a designation remains the subject of intense speculation. No one knows for sure exactly what it would mean. Fish and Wildlife officials stressed that if it’s approved—it remains only a proposal at this point—no land would be closed off, no legal activities shut down. Brian Trautwein with the Environmental Defense Center lauded the plan, predicting it might promote a boom in the eco-tourism industry. Christina Sandoval, the biologist who runs UCSB’s Coal Oil Point Reserve by the Devereux Slough where snowy plovers have made a dramatic comeback, said she heard many of the same warnings when the reserve was still in its infancy. None of those warnings, she added, have been borne out, and the beach remains open to everyone. Today, she said a section of the beach is closed off to protect the snowy plovers’ breeding and nesting there, but the rest of the beach also remains intensely used by UCSB students and Isla Vista residents.
A critical habitat designation would undoubtedly formalize an additional layer of regulatory oversight of a host of activities that now occur along the waterfront that require federal permits. For example, the city’s annual dredging program—required to keep the harbor from choking—needs Fish and Wildlife’s blessing to proceed. Also covered in the dredging permits are all the beach-grooming activities, storm drain outlet maintenance, and even the relocation of lifeguard towers. Beyond that, Fish and Wildlife has to sign off on flood control plans for Mission Creek, a proposal to expand and reconfigure the waterfront lagoon, and designs for a new bridge across Cabrillo Boulevard. Should the proposed designation be approved, it could affect whether the city’s traditional Fourth of July beachfront fireworks display—shot off from West Beach—can continue. Karl Treiberg, an official with the Waterfront Department, expressed doubt that the proposal would be approved. But even if it were, he said, “It’s not a de facto beach closure.” Treiberg said City Hall enjoys good working relations with Fish and Wildlife officials. In the past, he said, portions of the beach had been defined as critical habitat for the snowy plover “without onerous effect.” He added that City Hall has been accommodating the snowy plover for five years already, hiring biological consultants to check out the beaches for the threatened bird—and conducting annual counts—before raking equipment can be dispatched, for example. “We’re ahead of the curve,” he said.
For Redevelopment Agency chief Paul Casey—one of the top three administrators in City Hall—the uncertainty remains a serious cause for concern. “We’re definitely worried about it,” he said. “This is the heart of our commercial activity along the waterfront. Some people might say, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ but are they sure? Can we still have volleyball tournaments? Can we still have weddings on the beach?” Nor is he assuaged by comparisons to Devereux Beach. “Devereux is not Chase Palm Park,” he said.
A light-brown shore bird about six inches long, the Pacific snowy plover was placed on the federal government’s threatened species list in 1993. And while not so charismatic and flashy as a bald eagle or engagingly named as the red-legged frog, the plover—pronounced to rhyme with “lover”—has been no stranger to the byzantine political warfare endemic to critters on the brink of extinction. The bird migrates up and down the Pacific Coast, feasting on bugs and other tiny critters that crawl among the kelp heaps washed onshore by the tides. Drawn to areas around estuaries and lagoons, the snowy plover lays its eggs in nests little more than shallow indentations scratched lightly onto the surface of the sand. As a result, snowy plover eggs are vulnerable to a host of predators, as are the chicks once they’re hatched. (To compensate, the female doesn’t waste time tending the eggs or taking care of the young—leaving these functions to the male—but hurries off in search of new suitable mates.) Making the bird’s perch on the planet more precarious are all the usual suspects: coastal development, invasive nonnative sea grasses, dogs, cats, and birds. Beach grooming machines strip away the seaweed and kelp that accumulate upon the shore, depriving the plover of sustenance.
In 1993, biologists estimated the number of nesting “units” occupied by snowy plovers was down to 28 along the entire Pacific Coast. The plover count hovered at about 1,500. With threatened or endangered species, the real fight is over the size and scope of critical habitat, the natural real estate required for any species to come back. In 1999, Fish and Wildlife mapped out 19,500 acres up and down the coast for the plover’s restoration. But off-road motorists and dune buggy enthusiasts—many from Oceano—lobbied hard to get the number reduced, and in 2005, Fish and Wildlife obliged, reducing critical habitat down to 12,000 acres. Before the ink was dry, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) sued, charging that Julia MacDonald, then assistant director of the Department of the Interior, had intervened and short-sheeted the science at the expense of the plover. MacDonald would be accused of a host of ethical breaches involving no less than 55 endangered or threatened species; at various times she provided industry lobbyists access to internal confidential memos to help them make their case. When the CBD sued on behalf of the snowy plover in 2007, it included such allegations in its brief. The evidence would never see the light of a courtroom. With a new, more environmentally friendly administration in the White House, Fish and Wildlife quickly folded. The Pacific Legal Foundation—staunch advocates of property rights in the face of environmental regulation—would lament with disgust how Fish and Wildlife had “fallen on its sword.” To settle the lawsuit, Fish and Wildlife agreed to reexamine the issue of critical habitat for the snowy plover. And while the results aren’t everything that the Center for Biological Diversity wanted, they’re pretty close. The new proposal calls for 62 nesting units up and down the coast, and 28,000 acres instead of 12,000.
Of the three states involved in the restoration effort, California is expected to provide the most habitat. And nowhere in California are the expectations as high as they are in the tri-county swath of oceanfront running from Ventura County through Santa Barbara and into San Luis Obispo County. The species will be deemed safe from extinction if and when there are 3,000 breeding adults. Twelve hundred of those are slated for the tri-counties.
In Santa Barbara, Vandenberg Air Force Base is the site on one plover restoration effort. At UCSB’s Coal Oil Point—where there are 50 determined docents trained to keep sunbathers from encroaching on the dunes—the campaign is more popularly understood. When that program started 10 years ago, there were no nesting plovers at all; now there are 25 pairs. Over a 10-year period, Christina Sandoval has counted a total of 500 nests. During non-nesting times, the maximum number of visiting snowy plovers there ranges from 100 to a high of 450. Along the city’s East Beach waterfront, as many as 111 snowy plovers have been counted in one year. None there were nesting. They were foraging for food. But according to biologists with Fish and Wildlife, foraging stations play a crucial role, especially for birds on the move. None, by contrast, have been counted at West Beach. And only one pair has ever been found on the waterfront. That was 2005 on the sand spit in the harbor. Their presence caused quite a commotion. For the birders and environmentalists, it was cause for celebration. For those trying to manage waterfront operations, it was a temporary hardship. “We closed it down for several months, but it’s an isolated location and relatively easy to close,” said Karl Treiberg. “Try closing down East Beach. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of people.” Treiberg expressed confidence it will never come to that, but in the meantime, he’ll be talking to his counterparts at Fish and Wildlife.
The comment period for the proposed revised critical habitat plan closed last week. The Fish and Wildlife Service has until June 12 next year to make a decision.