Fellow Story

Protecting southern California's biodiversity

In this second-year Switzer Leadership Grant, the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) sought continued funding for Switzer Fellow Nick Jensen's position as Lead Conservation Scientist. Nick's ongoing work with CNPS will help to ensure its ability to protect habitats imperiled by two massive, poorly planned leapfrog development projects. Centennial, in northern Los Angeles County, is one of the largest planned new cities in California history. It would place nearly 20,000 homes on precious and imperiled grassland habitat where future residents would endure long commutes and high risk of wildfire and earthquakes. Paradise Valley, in Riverside County, would place nearly 9,000 homes in a remote area on the border of Joshua Tree National Park. The project threatened critical habitat for desert tortoises and microphyll woodland habitat that is critical for migratory birds.

For both projects, Nick guided CNPS in playing a key role in campaigns that employed a variety of successful tactics. First, they relied upon their scientific expertise to write comment letters highlighting impacts to sensitive botanical resources. Next, they connected with dozens of environmental and community organizations and local activists to expand the issues covered and the breadth of opposition. They then reached out to traditional media outlets to raise public awareness and to gain the attention of decision makers. They also made use of social media and blog posts to connect with a wider audience. Lastly, they organized rallies at public hearings and promoted oral testimony from a large number of local people and subject experts to give elected officials the information they needed to make truly informed decisions.

In the case of Centennial, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors ultimately approved the project despite clearly conveyed concerns about habitat loss and threats to public safety. As a result, CNPS joined with the Center for Biological Diversity on a lawsuit challenging the county's approval of the project. Engaging in legal action is the best chance to halt its progress, or at a minimum, effect changes that will lessen its impacts. For Paradise Valley, CNPS and a coalition of environmental and community organizations were able to influence the Riverside County Board of Supervisors to reject the project. They made this appropriate and just decision based on their concerns about public safety, the needs of the local community, and potential harm to irreplaceable habitat. Now, CNPS and partners will work to guarantee the long-term conservation of this previous landscape.