In summary

Rejection of the land exchange would ensure the integrity of the board’s responsibility and California’s commitment to conservation.

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By Dan Silver

Dan Silver is executive director of Endangered Habitats League,

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Pamela Flick, Special to CalMatters

Pamela Flick is the California Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife,

The word “controversial” is not a word used to describe the actions of the California Wildlife Conservation Board.  Unlike other state agencies that oversee environmental issues, the board’s main role is to distribute public funding for popular conservation projects such as purchasing easements and restoring fish and wildlife habitat. Votes by the board are nearly always unanimous. 

However, on Dec. 8, the Wildlife Conservation Board will face an unusual situation because it must vote on a highly controversial action universally opposed by conservation organizations and land trusts. 

What has caused such a storm at a normally tranquil agency?  

As part of a deal struck between the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and a private developer, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has asked the Wildlife Conservation Board to approve the exchange of Rancho Jamul State Ecological Reserve lands for parcels owned by the developer and thereby converting the state ecological reserve lands into a sprawling housing development in rural San Diego.

Ostensibly to resolve a dispute between the Department of Fish and Wildlife and San Diego County, the exchange rewards the county’s and project developer’s pressure tactics and non-compliance with a state-approved conservation plan.

The center of Proctor Valley, where the Department of Fish and Wildlife proposes to abandon the ecological reserve, is a crown jewel, essential for golden eagles and landscape connectivity.  Due to native understory and intact rare soil crusts, these lands have high value for the Quino checkerspot butterfly, which is on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss.

Usually, land exchanges are benign affairs with compelling benefits: resolving a nuisance or trades with other public agencies for stewardship. However, in this case, the Wildlife Conservation Board is being asked to dismantle an important state ecological reserve, convert some of the last and best remaining habitat for a critically endangered species, and accept in its place land of lesser habitat value.  

In 2003, the Department of Fish and Wildlife acquired the ecological reserve lands, with funding from the Wildlife Conservation Board, for “permanent protection” of important biological, scenic, cultural and historic resources. Since these lands were purchased with public funds distributed by the board, the board must approve the proposal for the deal to go forward. However, the Wildlife Conservation Board can only legally approve this exchange if it finds that the lands received in exchange for the previously protected area has “greater biological value as wildlife habitat.” Further, under the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s own guidelines, endangered species habitat can be traded away only if the species no longer exists there.  

In this case, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has admitted in its own documents that the lands it would receive in exchange for the ecological reserve lands are of lower biological value.  In addition, no one is disputing that the endangered Quino Checkerspot Butterfly exists on – and depends upon – the lands proposed for conversion.

Conservation organizations, including Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy, along with 27 land trusts, have written to the Wildlife Conservation Board objecting to this proposed land exchange because it “would threaten the permanent protected status of state conservation lands.” 

These organizations note that permanence of conservation is critically important when making strategic and financial decisions for conservation. If the Wildlife Conservation Board were to approve this land exchange in clear violation of existing law and guidelines, it would send a signal that protected lands throughout the state can be traded away for private development and therefore strikes at the integrity of public and private support for conservation.  

Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an important executive order in October calling for the protection of 30% of California’s lands and water by 2030 as part of the state’s effort to conserve its declining biodiversity and for better resiliency to the devastating impacts from climate change. The Wildlife Conservation Board has an important role to play in efforts to protect California’s lands and waters through its land acquisitions.  

The Wildlife Conservation Board must reject this proposed land exchange to ensure the integrity of its responsibility to distribute conservation funding and California’s commitment to conservation.  

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