Habitat plan moves forward

May 26, 2010, 1:09 a.m.

The California red-legged frog, bile brown and warty, is not an attractive creature. But soon even it might be getting some love.

(JIN ZHU/Staff Photographer)

On Tuesday night in Tresidder’s Oak Room, representatives from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NWFS), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Stanford’s own Department of Land Use and Environmental Planning presented a Habitat Conservation Plan to a group of about 50 community members. The three agencies believe the plan, which may be approved in the coming months, will help protect animal species that call Stanford land their home.

“Our purpose is to develop a plan for the Stanford campus that minimizes [environmental] impact to the greatest extent possible and mitigates the impact that cannot be avoided,” said Gary Stern, a fish biologist with NWFS.

“One of the more difficult parts was winnowing down the list of species to focus on,” said Charles Carter, director of Land Use and Environmental Planning at Stanford. “We heard about crickets and all kinds of lizards, and we had to decide which were most important and which were most endangered by Stanford’s activities.”

(JIN ZHU/Staff Photographer)

Five species made the final cut. Four of them — the California tiger salamander, the California red-legged frog, the San Francisco garter snake and the steelhead trout — are currently listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened or endangered. The Western pond turtle is not listed, but in recent decades its population has dwindled.

If approved, the Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) would cost Stanford about half a million dollars per year. It calls for restoration projects in the foothills above Stanford, the removal of fish barriers from local creeks and the permanent commitment of about 360 acres to conservation.

“To me, these conservation easements are the key,” said Carter.

He believes that having the land set aside for perpetuity will open the door to further environmental efforts, like those his department has already tackled.

One of these conservation projects concerns developing breeding grounds for the infamous California tiger salamander. The salamander’s historic breeding grounds in Lake Lagunita are surrounded by development and across a dangerous highway from the rest of their range. In the last decade, University conservationists have begun to construct alternative breeding pools for the salamander near the Dish walking paths.

The HCP would expand this program and continue to monitor salamander populations. Much of this surveillance work falls to Stanford conservation biologist Alan Launer and the students who work with him.

Alison Royer ’10 has worked with the salamanders and Launer ever since she took his conservation biology class.

“I’m a creek monkey,” said Royer. “It’s the best job ever — wading up and down the creek, just listening for plops.”

Royer attended last night’s HCP public hearing and after the presentation mingled with the attendees, many of whom were instrumental in its composition.

The conservation plan has been in the works for nearly two decades, but it was only in the past two years that the necessary Environmental Impact Statements were drafted. Complying with the National Environmental Policy Act, Stanford worked with agents from the USFWS and the NWFS to evaluate everything from geologic hazards to cultural resources associated with the proposed plan.

Catherine Palter, the associate director of the Department of Land Use and Environmental Planning, said collaborating with federal agents was time consuming, but ultimately beneficial.

“Working with them, we came up with a better conservation program,” she said.

Stanford hopes to save time in the long run by addressing the many individual projects and concerns in a single plan.

“Project by project is not the way to go,” explained Launer. “It just takes too long.”

Many people at the hearing expressed their excitement that the HCP was moving forward, while at the same time expressing some concerns about specific details.

“I would have liked to seen an even bigger emphasis on restoration,” said Philippe Cohen, the administrative director of Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve at Stanford, who served on the plan’s scoping and consulting team.

“I wish they would minimize maintenance,” added Royer. “They mow way more than they need to. I see foxes, rabbits, snakes up there, but after they mow they’re all gone.”

Stern says the HCP’s framers are currently collecting written comments and concerns like these.

“If they are beneficial to the species and within Stanford’s mean, we will work with the University to make them happen,” he said.

Ultimately, the final HCP will represent a complex compromise between multiple parties.

“It’s a contentious process,” said Cohen. “Still, if there is no HCP, everyone loses — the species, Stanford, the students and staff.”

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