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San Diego Refuge Managers Work To Balance Competing Land-Use Interests

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking comments on a proposed management plan

Video by Nicholas Mcvicker

Managers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working to develop a long-term plan to manage a large patchwork of land just east of Bonita and Chula Vista. Creating a plan that pleases everyone is proving to be a challenge.

This sparse landscape looks dry and lifeless to the average observer but not to Jill Terp. She manages the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge east of Bonita and Chula Vista. When her eyes sweep across this brown hillside, she sees habitat and history.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

The dry, sparse landscape of the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge, east of Bonita and Chula Vista, stretches into the distance, July 23, 2014.

"We're out here in this area that burned in the 2003 and 2007 fires. And we're looking at some of the recovery of the coastal sage scrub community in this area," said Terp, manager of the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge.

She is helping put together a comprehensive management plan for the refuge, but that's not easy because of competing interests, including habitat protection, recreation and hunting.

To show the challenge, Terp grabbed a spindly plant and pinched the dry leaves between her fingers.

"This is Artemisia California. This is coastal sage, the plant that this community is named for," she said.

The plant used to dominate the Southern California coast. Development supplanted most of the endangered coastal sage scrub habitat, and the remaining pockets are scattered throughout Southern California.

Since this area of southern San Diego County burned in recent years, Terp wants to understand how the native plants are bouncing back on the refuge's more than 11,000 acres.

Nurturing the habitat will nurture endangered species, she said. Those species include such birds as the California gnatcatcher and Least Bell's Vireo, and the Quino checkerspot butterfly.

There are also endangered habitats, including vernal pools that are home to fairy shrimp.

Terp said when people understand that, their perspective can change.

"We want people to learn about the plants and animals that are out here, understand it's the natural heritage of this area. And by developing that appreciation in folks, that'll help us to do better at conserving these lands," Terp said.

The refuge is not far from a more common Southern California habitat, suburbia.

The homes crowded on the Eastlake hillsides sit on land that used to look like the refuge. The suburbs won't encroach on the preserve, which is protected from development.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Andy Yuen, project leader for the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex, is shown on the refuge east of Bonita and Chula Vista, July 23, 2014.

But Andy Yuen, project leader for the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex, hopes people will visit the area.

"We think the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge is the archetype of an urban refuge," Yuen said. "We are literally on the doorstep of three and a half million people. You step outside of downtown San Diego and in minutes you are out in tremendously productive wildlife habitats."

With so many people so close, Yuen said there are many opinions about the best management strategies. People are interested in preserving access to trails. They want pristine habitat. But the issue that has drawn the most fire from the public is a proposal that allows hunting in part of the refuge.

"It's sandwiched by lands that are already open for hunting. So hunting is allowed on the Bureau of Land Management lands here, and on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife lands here," Yuen said. "So our addition of our refuge lands fills in that gap between two areas that are already available for hunting to the public."

That riled environmentalists. An online petition to ban hunting has gotten more than 80,000 signatures.

Biologist Renee Owens works with the local Sierra Club, and she said guns are a concern for her.

"Personally, when I go walking my dogs in (federal) Forest Service lands, I don't go during certain hunting seasons. Better safe than sorry. So I do alter my own recreation based on what's going on," Owens said.

Hunters are a small and shrinking minority, but they are vocal, Owens said. She acknowledged that federal officials are trying to balance a mandate to allow different kinds of recreational activities on refuge lands, but she thinks hunting can be left out.

"Truth is, a lot of these users — hikers, bikers, equestrians, photographers, birders — don't want firearms in their outdoor experience. It's pretty much that simple. And then there's all of the safety questions, increased fire risk," Owens said.

Submit A Comment

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting comments on the proposed conservation plan until Sept. 17.

Mail comments to: Victoria Touchstone, Refuge Planner San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex, P.O. Box 2358, Chula Vista, CA 91912-2358.

Fax comments to: (619) 476-9149.

Email comments to: (include “San Diego NWR CCP” in the subject line).

Yuen said refuge managers are considering four different proposals. The alternatives contain plans for habitat protection, recreational access and hunting. He said the final plan could be one of the four alternatives or it could contain parts from several proposals. Even then the resulting plan wouldn't be chiseled in stone.

"Over time we're going to be monitoring the success of the refuge In terms of recovery of native species, the health of the native plant communities, the opportunities for the public to enjoy these lands," he said.

Yuen is pleased that people are speaking out about the refuge's future. He said it shows him that people care. In fact, enough people are speaking out that the initial public comment period has been extended 30 days — until the middle of September.

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