April 19, 2010
Stanford issues habitat conservation plan
Stanford University is applying to create a habitat conservation plan for its campus, and that proposal appeared Friday, April 16, in the Federal Register.
Publication of the proposal in the Federal Register is the first step toward approval of a plan Stanford believes will lead to better protection of threatened species on campus.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will hold a public meeting on the application on May 25. The university may hold its own public meetings before then to explain the plan and its implications to members of the neighboring communities.
Habitat conservation plans (HCP), made possible by the U.S. Endangered Species Act, allow landholders to create comprehensive, long-term conservation plans, rather than rely on short-term, limited mitigations for specific projects that might affect threatened or endangered species.
The species of concern to Stanford include the California tiger salamander, steelhead, the California red-legged frog, the Western pond turtle and the San Francisco garter snake.
"Stanford's proposed plan will allow us to protect threatened species well in advance of any possible impacts from the university's ongoing operations," said Catherine Palter, associate director of Land Use and Environmental Planning and HCP project manager. The plan, if approved, would cover a 50-year period.
Creates comprehensive plan
"Our HCP will create a comprehensive plan and implement innovative solutions. The Endangered Species Act is not meant to stop operations, but rather to ensure that operations are done in a way that is thoughtful about protected species," Palter said.
An HCP ensures that the five covered species are protected in the face of activities that could harm them. In Stanford's case, that includes routine maintenance of roads and facilities, field research and teaching, water withdrawals from creeks, agriculture, recreation and construction, according to Palter, who worked on the application with Alan Launer, Stanford's conservation program manager.
Stanford's HCP the culmination of nearly a decade of conservation biology surveys, monitoring and enhancements was submitted to the federal government in 2008. It divides the university's lands into four habitat zones, establishes a comprehensive conservation program and outlines efforts to monitor the status of protected species.
If approved by the federal agencies, Stanford's HCP would cost an average of $500,000 to $600,000 per year, although not all of those funds would be newly budgeted, Palter said.
The HCP would create permanent easements along 13 miles of the San Francisquito, Los Trancos, Matadero and Deer creeks, equaling about 360 acres of land. The easements are designed to enhance the habitats of species that rely on creeks and protect the riparian area between the land and stream. As a result of the easements, the university anticipates removing roads and structures to allow for the restoration of riparian vegetation.
Reserve for California tiger salamander
The HCP also would create a 315-acre California tiger salamander reserve in the lower foothills, where no development is permitted for at least 50 years. Eventually, the university hopes to encourage a flourishing salamander population in the foothills by building inviting ponds and maintaining tunnels across Junipero Serra Boulevard.
Other examples of mitigations proposed under the HCP include:
- Removal of structures in streams that impede steelhead migration,
- Construction of basking platforms at Searsville and Felt reservoirs for Western pond turtles, and
- Continued water supply to Lagunita to support salamander breeding while a foothills habitat is established.
Although more than 1,000 HCPs have been granted by the federal government nationwide, they can be controversial because they allow for incidental "taking," meaning harming or killing, of protected species members. The taking is permitted, however, only if mitigations are in place, which is what the Stanford HCP proposes.
Palter said she also is concerned that members of the public may misunderstand long-term potential growth projected in habitat areas under the plan. Such projections are necessary so that mitigations can be planned, she said.
"We estimated a 1- to 3-acre loss of habitat a year over 50 years or at most 4 percent of habitat land," Palter said. "We don't have any development plans in habitat areas. But, once we had an estimate, we could structure a plan that ensured that any future work if it were permitted by local agencies would not require further endangered species permits."
Under the HCP, if the university develops any valuable habitat area, it must offset that development with permanent easements equal to three times the amount of land.
Palter said she is hopeful the plan will be approved. If so, Stanford will immediately implement the conservation plan.
"We've been talking about this for such a long time," Palter said. "We're pretty excited about moving through the paperwork and moving into the conservation."
Now that Stanford's proposed plan has been published in the Federal Register, during the next 90 days the public can comment in writing on the plan and the accompanying Environmental Impact Statement. Once the 90 days are over, the two federal agencies will respond to public comment and either approve or deny the plan.
The complete draft report and additional information is available online.