Wildlife Corridors Not High-Speed Rail Coming to California

In a rare historical moment that counters half a millennium of Modernity, non-human species, their native environments and their freedom of movement, have been privileged over the transportation of humans within the State of California.

In a month when Gavin Newsom, the newly appointed Governor of California, in his state of the State address, all but threw in the towel over high-speed rail, agreeing to call it quits after the rump line between Merced and Bakersfield in the Central Valley is finally built, the County of Ventura plans to institute a Wildlife Corridor Overlay Zone that will enhance the possibilities of survival for the County’s fragmented wildlife populations.

Is it entirely specious to couple these two events?

For one shining instant, can Californian wildlife corridors and the high-speed rail system co-exist within the public imagination and register the smallest of tremors, a foreshock that presages a shift in the zeitgeist? Allow me to savor the possibilities of the moment.

Upon returning from this fanciful conflation, it is appropriate to remind ourselves, in these days of spurious States of Emergency (can we doubt that more will carom down the Trumpian track?) that,

“Of all the decisions any society must make, perhaps the most fundamental ones concern the natural world, for it is upon the earth’s biota – its plants, animals, waters, and other living substances – that all human existence ultimately depends.” Karl Jacoby, Crimes against Nature, 2001.

The County of Ventura, in Southern California, squeezed between the Counties of Los Angeles to the southeast, Santa Barbara to the west and Kern to the north, has made a fundamental, life-affirming decision: its plans for wildlife connectivity, if approved by the County Board of Supervisors early in March, will be the most far-reaching provisions of their kind in California. But, just like high-speed rail, they face a panoply of reactionary forces arrayed against them. But it now appears, that of the two projects, wildlife corridors are the more likely to transcend this opposition.

In his analysis of this country’s environmental history, Jacoby notes that during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “in an unprecedented outburst of legislation known as the conservation movement, American lawmakers radically redefined what constituted legitimate uses of the environment.” The movement’s philosophical foundations were laid by conservationist stalwarts, George Perkins Marsh (Man and Nature, 1864), John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt, among others. But there arose too, a vociferous and sometimes violent reaction by those impacted by these new laws which regulated hunting, fishing, logging, the setting of fires and other activities that impinge on the natural landscape. What was once legal, or at least unaddressed by the laws of the land, often became illegal.

The proposed passage of protections for ‘Habitat Connectivity and Wildlife Corridors’ has elicited echoes of this reaction: most egregiously at the recent Planning Commission Hearing, when one landowner shouted out, during the afternoon’s public comment phase (which lasted over five hours), that the County’s planners and planning commissioners “should be taken out and shot.” This death threat was met by his removal from the hearing room by Sherriff’s deputies.

Despite the frenzied outcries of concerned property-owners who branded the proposals as the ’Wildfire Corridor’, falsely claiming that leaving lands un-cleared would encourage the passage of fire (the opposite is true, since cleared wildland leads inevitably to botanical type-conversion whereby the ancient, endemic ecosystems are replaced by hyper-inflammable weedy grasses), the Planning Commission unanimously approved the provisions. The Planning Department staff-recommendations will now move on for consideration by the County’s Board of Supervisors on May 12. Their expected approval will likely lead to an appeal by the opposition forces and an eventual resolution in California’s Supreme Court.

While the Planning Commission hearing heard but one outburst of threatened violence, a barely constrained anger flowed through most of the crowd in attendance. They had been organized, encouraged, and accoutered with lapel stickers (urging, ‘Send it Back!’), and provided with a variety of pre-printed foam-core placards by their non-profit front, the Ventura County Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business (VC CoLAB). The organization contends that “The proposed ordinance places extreme restrictions on fencing, walls, lighting, and structures that will compromise the security of families and prevent property owners from reasonable use of their land.” Their counsel advises that “the proposed ordinance constitutes a regulatory taking of private land that would require just compensation and violates the Equal Protection and Due Process rights of property owners.” Let it be said, that despite the absence of MAGA hats, this was the closest I ever want to get to a Trump Rally – or a lynching – for the blood curdling sense of barely-contained frontier violence hung heavy in the air.

Undeterred, the following week I attended my local Ojai City Council meeting at which the Mayor and four Council members planned to discuss the sending of a letter in support of the proposed ordinance. Thankfully, VC CoLAB, and their property-owner legions seemed nowhere in evidence, perhaps rightly discerning, that whether this small incorporated City sent a letter or not, was of little import. So it was, that as the clock approached ten o’clock, and the agenda item came up for discussion, the audience in the council chamber had been reduced to two – me and a gentleman who had no interest in the issue. I spoke in favor of the ordinance and the letter-sending motion passed unanimously. I left the chamber and strode into the chill air both delighted with the evening’s outcome and relieved that, as is customary after nine p.m., the streets of Ojai were entirely deserted.

The greatest threat to wildlife rangelands in California is the system of freeways that cross hatch its still substantial areas of wild habitat, isolate populations, and promote genetic fragmentation. As a top-predator, the mountain lion is key to the survival of Southern California as one of the most biologically rich natural landscapes in the world. Because of the pressure that sprawling growth has placed on its habitat, Southern California has been the focus of pioneering research into the science of habitat fragmentation and wildlife corridors. Paul Beier has been the leading scientist developing much of this work, in California and internationally, for the last thirty years.

He was a key figure in the critical academic study, Missing Linkages: Restoring Connectivity to the California Landscape,2000, which came out of a conference in San Diego sponsored by both California State Parks and The Nature Conservancy, among others. The assembled biologists developed the understanding that anthropogenic forces were carving up the wildlands into smaller and smaller bites and reducing the viability of California’s natural heritage. Wildlife corridors were proposed as an antidote to this fragmentation. Additionally, they suggested that specific range bottlenecks might be relieved with freeway overpasses, underpasses and culverts, provided that enough natural habitat existed on either side of such connections. Barely south of the Ventura County line, in Agoura Hills, Caltrans, the State’s Transportation Department, is proposing to build an approximately 50’ wide vegetated bridge across U.S. 101, known locally as the Ventura Freeway. When completed, it will be the largest wildlife crossing in the United States, and link habitat in the Santa Monica Mountains, via a wildlife corridor, with the Los Padres National Forest.

Beier has contributed his research to the South Coast Wildlands Group who have developed the specific proposals for wildlife corridors in Ventura County. Such connectivity between areas of wildlife habitat not only improves outcomes for the State’s charismatic animals such as the mule deer, mountain lion, bobcat, grey fox, and badger, but its entire community of wildland species and native flora.

The State of California has worked in parallel to identify priority conservation areas. Its Department of Fish and Wildlife is charged with compiling an on-going database of California’s most critical areas for maintaining habitat connectivity, including wildlife corridors and habitat linkages. Counties throughout the state, it is hoped, will begin instituting planning overlay zones to support the protection of these vital wildlife links.

The fight for wildlife conservation, which has endured for well over a century, is now shrouded by global warming and the awful knowledge that we are experiencing the sixth extinction. Within these twinned realities, Ventura County is nevertheless making attempts to ameliorate conditions for the indigenous fauna and flora with whom we share the land. They face virulent opposition from hobby-farmers, W.U.I. homesteaders and horse-ranchers. But by moving their program of ‘Habitat Connectivity and Wildlife Corridors’ forward, guided by impeccable research (whose scientific credibility the opposition predictably questions), it is making both a practical and deeply symbolic gesture.  Although the proposed ordinance is vitiated by the exclusion of all agricultural and oil lands, as well as other provisions designed to assuage land-owners, the County is acting, it seems, in full knowledge that the species we ultimately save will be our own.

John Davis is an architect living in southern California. Read more of his writing at urbanwildland.org