Stanford issues habitat conservation plan

The University plan protects the California tiger salamander, steelhead, California red-legged frog, Western pond turtle and San Francisco garter snake.

L.A. Cicero California tiger salamander

Stanford's habitat conservation plan would create a 315-acre California tiger salamander reserve in the lower foothills.

Stanford University, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service, has developed a habitat conservation plan for Stanford lands. On April 16, the federal agencies completed their notice of publication of Stanford's proposal 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 official public comment meeting sponsored by the USFWS and the NOAA Fisheries Service will be held by those agencies at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 25, in the Oak West Lounge of Stanford’s Tresidder Union, 459 Lagunita Drive. Comments made at this meeting or during the 90-day public comment period must be provided to the agencies in writing. The public comment period runs until July 15.

In addition, Stanford will host two informational meetings:

  • Thursday, May 6, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Town of Portola Valley Town Center, Buckeye Room, 765 Portola Road, Portola Valley
  •  Thursday, May 13, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Palo Alto Art Center Meeting Room, 1313 Newell Road, Palo Alto

Habitat conservation plans, 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 project manager for the habitat conservation plan (HCP). The plan, if approved, would cover a 50-year period.


L.A. Cicero Catherine Palter and Alan Launer inspect a 2003 habitat restoration site in the Stanford foothills.

Catherine Palter and Alan Launer inspect a 2003 habitat restoration site in the Stanford foothills.

"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.

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."

How 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.

The Federal Register notice (with contact information and links to the documents) can be found online as well.

Kate Chesley, University Communications: (650) 725-3697,