By John Hopkins and Glenda Edwards
From Linkages, Fall 1995
Linkages is a publication of the Institute for Ecological Health
The people who have lived in California for the last 25 or 30 years have witnessed a rapid and intensive human alteration of the state's natural environment and agricultural lands. And we are building types of communities that do not work well for people, but create additional economic and social problems. "California cannot support a population growing past 30 million people based on existing housing and transportation patterns without unacceptable economic, social and environmental costs," stated the governor's Growth Management Council in 1994.
Our natural world and our human communities face interrelated threats today because we have not discovered ways to both preserve nature and provide for people. We try to solve the problems in piecemeal fashion, but we end up divided and polarized within our own communities, while more houses go up and pavement goes down.
The results of this impasse are recorded in study after study showing the rich diversity of California species and habitat in sharp decline. This is especially important because the state possesses one of the richest varieties of species and plant communities in the temperate world. The redwood forests and oak woodlands, the mountain, desert and valley landscapes are extremely important to most citizens for their physical beauty and variety and their natural resource and recreational values. The state's largest industry, tourism, relies heavily on the magnificence of natural landscapes. The biological toll in a 1987 report included 33 percent of mammals at risk, 40 percent of amphibians at risk, 57 percent of plant communities either naturally rare or threatened with extinction (Sliding Toward Extinction, Jones and Stokes for The Nature Conservancy, 1987). Renowned biologist E.O. Wilson tells us that the non-desert lands, collectively called the California Floristic Province, are among 18 forest and scrubland regions in the world at risk of losing entire ecosystems and masses of species unique to the affected habitats (The Diversity of Life, E.O. Wilson, 1992).
The Central Valley and surrounding foothills provide vivid examples of the human problems we face. The Valley is the nation's most threatened food-producing area, with coastal California third on the list (American Farmland, Summer 1993 and US Census Bureau/Dept of Agriculture cited in USA Today, July 15, 1993). Planning consultant Rudy Platzek points out that the Central Valley is projected to have a population of 15.6 million by the year 2040. By then, a third of the Valley's irrigated agricultural lands could be lost to development. Fresno, the nation's number one agricultural county, could have a population of 2.5 million. Will it follow Los Angeles County, the number one agricultural county 50 years ago?
Current development patterns will result in the creation of vast mega-cities on the former agricultural lands. One will stretch 125 miles from Marysville to Merced, another 100 miles from central Madera County to central Tulare County, says Rudy Platzek. We are contemplating an endless sea of separate housing tracts interspersed with shopping centers and business parks to house and employ those 15.6 million.
The Sierra foothills will catch the urban spill-over, especially along major state highways. The small communities of the Gold Country, Mother Lode and South Sierra Counties will follow western Placer County and turn into small versions of Sacramento and Modesto, forever altering the beauty and rural lifestyle of the foothill counties.
Valley and foothill air quality will suffer. The American Lung Association points out that the San Joaquin Valley has the potential to have the nation's most polluted air. Scientists point out that projected ozone levels in the forests of the south Sierra will cause major damage to the trees.
Breaking the Deadlock
Our traditional approaches fail because they struggle with the fate of the landscape in fragments, deciding what will happen to each bit of land on almost an acre by acre scale, rather than integrating planning across large landscapes. And they address each issue separately, failing to seek and enact changes that would better meet the needs of both humans and nature. Proactive solutions go beyond the piecemeal approach to look at a range of biological and economic issues at the scale of watersheds, bioregions or large landscapes. On these large scales, we can integrate the ecological health and native biodiversity of a region with the well-being of human communities within that area.
Local governments are on the opposite track. For example, city and county general plans in California project growth and determine land use patterns for 10 to 20 years. The planning assumption is that each city and county can continue these 10 to 20 year cycles until all the land is developed and producing at the highest possible tax rate, as has happened in many areas of Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area. Environmental and human quality of life are seen mostly as constraints to development and as limiting economic vitality in the short term. Very few counties or cities plan for permanent open space or large landscape habitat conservation, unless forced to do so by state or federal laws.
Large landscape, integrated planning is the solution the Institute for Ecological Health is promoting. But we are not seeking the kinds of formal, top-down regional government schemes which have been promoted without success for many years. Instead, we believe the citizens in a region need to come together and develop their own vision or framework for the future of the natural and human landscapes. The frameworks encompass protection of biological diversity and healthy ecosystems. They include ways to provide a high quality of life and healthy economies. We are seeking solutions that allow us to live with nature.