Stanford conservation plan comes up for review

April 29, 2010, 1:03 a.m.

As early as mid-July, Stanford and federal agencies could come one step closer to finalizing a 50-year habitat conservation plan for the California tiger salamander and other species on University property.

Federal agencies published the draft proposal for Stanford’s Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP), which has been in the works for almost two decades, on April 16 in the Federal Register. This marks the first motion toward approval of a plan that Stanford believes will protect animal species living on University-owned land, such as Lake Lagunita and nearby foothills.

The plan, which was developed jointly with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, proposes permanent easements on approximately 360 acres of University-owned land along San Francisquito, Los Trancos, Matadero and Deer Creeks.

The federal government requires landowners to make plans outlining their mitigation efforts for activities affecting federally protected species. In return, the government issues “take” permits for landowners to undergo such activities — construction and maintenance, for example.

“Take” permits allow landowners to harm or destroy the habitat of a local species population as long as they make net-benefit mitigation efforts.

If approved by the federal agencies, the plan would cost $500,000 to $600,000 per year.

“The long term goals are to stabilize and ultimately increase the populations of [threatened] species … [and] the University’s goals include maintaining native biodiversity on Stanford lands,” wrote Catherine Palter, the associate director of Land Use and Environmental Planning, in an e-mail to The Daily.

Five species are currently listed for specific coverage by the plan: the California red-legged frog, the California tiger salamander, the steelhead trout, the Western pond turtle and the San Francisco garter snake.

The plan would require Stanford to actively intervene in several ecosystems to promote the selected species’ survival. The University would have to remove all structures impeding steelhead migration routes, construct “basking platforms” for Western pond turtles at Felt and Searsville reservoirs and provide a perennial water supply to Lagunita to support salamander breeding while a 315-acre salamander reserve is established in the lower foothills.

Philippe Cohen, the administrative director of Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve at Stanford, said steep mitigation has been proposed to prevent the loss of habitat land. For every acre of habitat land developed by the University, three more acres must be set aside for permanent conservation.

According to Palter, the HCP development team has estimated a one- to three-acre loss of habitat a year for 50 years, about four percent of total habitat land.

Palter, along with Robert Reidy, the vice president of Land, Buildings and Real Estate, and Alan Launer, the conservation program manager in Land Use and Environmental Planning, wrote in a joint e-mail to The Daily that Stanford has a long history of conservation activities. A zoology club was established on campus more than 100 years ago and early studies of California tiger salamanders began here in the 1930s.

Development of the conservation plan began in the late 1990s with preliminary discussions between Stanford and federal conservation agencies, they said, adding that the groups involved have been in nearly constant contact since then.

“The project is very multi-faceted — it has a lot of different heads on it,” Cohen said. “Jasper Ridge, Stanford faculty and administration and government agencies don’t all have the same priorities.”

Cohen believes that reconciling the differing plans and goals of these diverse institutions has been one of the greatest difficulties faced by the plan’s developers.

Palter, Reidy and Launer feel that many potential adversities in developing the plan were mitigated by thorough completion of the necessary documentation, as well as professional interaction with federal agencies. They wrote that the most frustrating aspect so far has been how long it has taken for them to reach this point.

The HCP is currently in the 90-day public review period. A public comment meeting is scheduled for May 25 at Tresidder, and Stanford plans to host information meetings on May 6 in Portola Valley and May 13 in Palo Alto. The public comment ends July 15, after which the federal agencies will begin the process of deciding whether or not to approve the HCP.

Palter said if the plan is approved, Stanford would immediately begin implementing the program.

“It’s been long overdue, and I’m really glad to see it finally coming to fruition,” Cohen said.

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