Important Bird Area
End of the Road
A 16-mile tollway was set to plow through a popular Southern California park and some of the region’s last unspoiled wildlife habitat. Then a ragtag environmental militia got in the way.
Jerry Collamer remembers a time when surfers had to sneak past the Marines to reach Southern California’s best wave break, which owes its fame to clean water and melon-size rocks that help sculpt the waves to near perfection. That was before surfboards had ankle leashes and when wiping out meant possibly losing your ride indefinitely to officers patrolling the coast, which was part of a training base at Camp Pendleton. Ignoring “Do Not Enter” signs and the threat of amphibious landings, Collamer and his buddies paddled to the break down a creek, called San Mateo, that empties onto the beach. Although they were never caught, they came close on more than a few occasions. “One time they chased us all the way up the railroad tracks,” remembers Collamer, now 67.
These days that beach, known as Trestles for the elevated train supports that stand 300 feet from the water’s edge, is part of San Onofre State Beach, one of the most popular state parks in all of California for its low-budget campground and, of course, its world-class waves. When the weather’s good, the place is packed with surfers. “It could get so congested, you could walk from board to board three miles down the beach,” says Collamer.
Starting in 1999, Collamer spent countless days for nearly a decade at Trestles, rising at dawn with other surfers itching to catch an early morning wave—except he wasn’t there to hang ten. Collamer was, as he puts it, working a full-time job to incite the surfing community to help protect the land he once trespassed on from the final leg of a proposed toll road. The 16-mile road, extending from southern Orange County to a point just shy of Trestles, would slice through the heart of some of Southern California’s last unspoiled landscape, including habitat crucial to the threatened California gnatcatcher in a pair of Important Bird Areas—the Southern Orange County IBA and the Camp Pendleton IBA. Collamer was part of a crew of surfers and campers, retirees and college students, Native Americans, lawyers, and conservation and outdoors groups determined to fight the road and its phalanx of supporters, among them California’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and several state and federal agencies.
Beginning as ripples in a pond, the activism grew into a tsunami “that brought in new players, new energy, new approaches, and new enthusiasm,” says Dan Taylor, public policy director at Audubon California, a key player. “It was probably the most sophisticated and coordinated and concentrated environmental action that I have seen in over 30 years of experience in California.”
California isn’t known for toll roads, but it is notorious for sprawl, especially in the south, where more than half of the state’s 37 million residents live. In the 1980s, with scarce government funds available to build freeways and highways, local officials looked for, and found, another option: road construction financed through the sale of bonds by two government agencies collectively called the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA). The roads would be operated as toll roads until the construction debt was paid off, at which point the tolls would be removed and the roads would become public freeways.
The TCA’s long-term plan entailed building 67 miles of tollways, which would have formed the largest such network in California. As of 1999, all were completed, except the final segment, the Foothill-South 241 corridor, a four-lane, $1.3 billion project to connect an existing toll road in southern Orange County to Interstate 5, which runs through San Onofre State Beach in San Diego County. Designed to alleviate traffic congestion on I-5, Foothill-South would have also accommodated future development already approved along 12 of its miles by one of the region’s largest private landholders, Rancho Mission Viejo.
For Collamer, the plans simply highlighted the region’s culture of urban sprawl. “Pave another frickin’ road, and then develop all around it,” he says. “That’s the history of Southern California.” He should know, since he grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in San Clemente, just minutes from San Onofre. Collamer began fighting Foothill-South on the heels of another effort to preserve land in the San Mateo watershed, one of the least developed in the area. Surfers appreciate its wild state, particularly since San Mateo Creek, one of its main waterways, supplies the rocks and sediment that help generate the awesome waves at Trestles. Foothill-South was to cross several of the watershed’s tributaries, potentially harming water quality and flow. Although scientists doubted the project would affect the wave break, even the perceived threat to Trestles was cause for alarm among the die-hard surfers. Collamer seized the opportunity to rally them to the cause.
In his nondescript black T-shirt, jeans, and Nike sneakers and capped by a fuse of luxurious white hair, Collamer is a loose cannon. Today, walking down one of several long paths through the park that lead to the beach, he retraces the steps he took unflaggingly for years, hauling a cart of supplies each day to the crossroads where he set up his “office”—a table adorned with protest signs, clipboards with petitions, and bumper stickers. A long career in advertising had taught him the value of a simple, unchanging message, and the handouts—which later included T-shirts—he offered to anyone who would take them featured his battle cry: “Save Trestles. Stop the Toll Road.”
Business was slow at first, and Collamer admits that the idea of fighting a road in Southern California seemed quixotic given that the project had the heavyweight support of a brigade of local, state, and federal politicians and eventually Schwarzenegger. In January 2008 the governor sent a letter to the California Coastal Commission, which oversees land and water use along much of the state’s coast and which would ultimately decide the project’s fate. In the letter, he declared that Foothill-South “gives us a chance to protect our parks and our coastline and reduce one of the most damaging environmental problems that plagues our state: traffic gridlock.” The following March, Schwarzenegger declined to reappoint two of the road’s opponents—one of his friends, actor Clint Eastwood, and his brother-in-law, Robert Shriver—to the State Park and Recreation Commission. Though the governor didn’t admit as much, the press suggested the move was because of their opposition to the toll road. The headline in USA Today blared, “Terminator Fires Eastwood, Shriver.”
Collamer pressed on, despite the odds. “I thought, I’ve done crazy stuff in my life, but this is the craziest thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “I had every politician in Orange County telling me, ‘You’re out of your mind. You can’t stop this toll road.’ ” Still, he wasn’t alone. A coalition initially including the Sierra Club, the Endangered Habitats League, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Audubon California, and Orange County’s Sea and Sage Audubon chapter had been battling Foothill-South for 15 years. (The California State Parks Foundation was a major player later.) Collectively known as “Save San Onofre,” the coalition worked to expose all the threats, not just near the beach but also in inland areas within the two IBAs.
The IBA program is a global network of sites recognized by Audubon and its partner, BirdLife International, as essential for the survival of one or more bird species. The program has identified 145 such sites in California alone. At 50,000 acres (many of which fall within the Rancho Mission Viejo property), the Southern Orange County IBA contains some of the only unfragmented landscape typical of Southern California’s rare Mediterranean climate. Here, in and around the San Mateo watershed, oak woodlands and grasslands flourish amid tall, dense, woody vegetation called chaparral and low-lying shrublands known as coastal sage scrub. Comprised of herbaceous plants such as buckwheat and fragrant California sagebrush, dazzling bursts of daisy-like California encelia, and prickly pear cacti that jut from the soil like abstract sculptures, coastal sage scrub is one of the terrain’s signature environments. It’s also increasingly rare, having declined in Southern California by more than 85 percent, lost largely to development but also to wildfires. Together the various habitats form a natural mosaic that supports a trove of threatened and endangered plant and animal species, many unique to the region. “There’s no habitat almost anywhere else in the country like this,” says Pete DeSimone, manager of Audubon’s Starr Ranch Sanctuary, who has fought various arms of the toll road network for decades.
In 2007 Audubon California sent a letter to the California Coastal Commission protesting the Foothill-South project. In it, Glenn Olson, then the executive director, identified more than 20 sensitive bird species found in the Southern Orange County IBA, including the coastal California gnatcatcher, a small, gray songbird with a call like a kitten’s mew. As a nonmigratory species, gnatcatchers nest and forage for insects in coastal sage scrub. The bird’s dwindling U.S. population—a quarter of which lives in this IBA—has coincided with its diminishing habitat, a trend that put the gnatcatcher on the endangered species list in 1993.
In its path to the sea, Foothill-South would have marched through nearly 50 acres of the coastal sage scrub used by gnatcatchers in the Southern Orange County IBA, according to an analysis done by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The road would have sheared off an additional 42 acres at the southern tip in the Donna O’Neill Land Conservancy, a 1,200-acre haven already set aside as mitigation for a previous development project. As it approached the border of San Diego County, the route would have traced the northern edge of the Camp Pendleton IBA, degrading 220 additional acres of suitable gnatcatcher habitat and disrupting a natural exchange between populations in San Diego and Orange counties. In total, up to 31 gnatcatcher pairs would likely have been directly threatened, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service study, with nearly four dozen pairs potentially suffering from project-related impacts. “It’s not just the footprint of the toll road, it’s everything that goes with it: light, noise, runoff, aesthetics,” says DeSimone. Traffic could have also spoiled riparian areas near the road used by the least Bell’s vireo, a small, olive-gray migratory songbird and a federally endangered species found in both IBAs. Furthermore, removal of the vireo’s habitat in several creek drainages would have affected some of the bird’s breeding spots, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
At least five other endangered or threatened species also stood to suffer from road construction and its aftermath. One of those, the critically endangered little Pacific pocket mouse, might not even have survived the blow. Resembling a furry cork with a tail, the tiny rodent—it weighs about as much as two nickels—is the rarest mouse in North America, limited to four populations in Southern California. Part of Foothill-South’s planned route, along a hill adjacent to the campground, would have bisected two of the remaining populations, removing habitat at one of them, thus obstructing a recovery plan for the species, according to Wayne Spencer, a wildlife conservation biologist with the Conservation Biology Institute, who reviewed the project for the coalition. “I’m convinced that this project would have threatened the mouse with extinction,” says Mark Delaplaine, a coastal analyst for the California Coastal Commission, who spent months mining through documents related to the project. “That in itself is grounds for denial of the road.”
The TCA barreled along anyway, receiving approval from agencies such as the National Marines Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, whose biological opinion ultimately found that the project was not likely to jeopardize federally listed threatened and endangered species. Recognizing the force it was up against, Save San Onofre stayed on the offensive, filing a lawsuit contesting the TCA’s environmental certification of the project. (The coalition later lodged a complaint against the agencies for relying on outdated science, uncertain mitigation strategies, and, ultimately, violating the Endangered Species Act.) California Attorney General Bill Lockyer joined the effort, filing a suit on similar grounds. U.S. Representatives Susan Davis and Loretta Sanchez helped stop federal legislation that might have exempted the road from California laws designed to protect the state’s natural, historical, and cultural resources.
Meanwhile, coalition members, guided largely by the Sierra Club, deployed their expanding grassroots network, an effort that took off in 2004. That year Surfrider, a coastal conservation nonprofit founded in California 25 years ago and now boasting 80 chapters worldwide, signed on. If Collamer once tested his sanity by handing out bumper stickers to anyone who would take them, he was now part of an absolute army. “At the beginning it was me at 7:00 a.m. at the beach and one surfer coming by,” he says. But “when Surfrider came on board, everything changed.”
As the Sierra Club had done, Surfrider hired a staffer to work on the campaign full-time. To encourage public participation, the coalition organized meetings and letter-writing projects to both state and national officials. Volunteers set up information booths at surfing tournaments and farmers’ markets, picketed at roadsides, and petitioned at parties. Activists traveled to Sacramento, the state capital, where they presented Schwarzenegger with a surfboard signed by opponents and planted small red tents on the lawn to represent each of the 161 campsites they were convinced would be harmed—indeed 60 percent of the park would have to be abandoned because of the road’s infringement, according to the California Department of Parks and Recreation. “It became this cause célèbre,” says Collamer.
Just how big that cause had grown became clear in February 2008 on a sunny day in San Diego. The California Coastal Commission held a hearing at the Del Mar Fairgrounds about whether the project violated the California Coastal Act, the country’s strongest land use law. Hanging in the balance was the future of the project itself. For the six months before the hearing, people on both sides of the issue had bombarded commission staff with tens of thousands of emails, letters, petitions—even videos.
The hearing, which lasted 12 hours and drew a record turnout of 3,500 people, was like nothing the commission had ever encountered. Many of those attending had to stand outside because of limited space indoors. Members of the Acjachemen people, a Native American tribe, sang a ceremonial song to honor the site of an ancient ancestral village called Panhé—considered sacred—located in the road’s path. Two college students attended in costumes they had made the night before and designed to resemble Foothill-South. “It was like Woodstock,” says DeSimone. “It was really incredible.”
As day gave way to night, the audience awaited the final decision. Many of the activists thought they had, at best, a tie vote from the commission, which normally consists of four governor-appointed members, four California Senate appointees, and four California Assembly-appointed ones (two members were absent that day). Instead, the result was 8-2, against the plan. The place erupted. “There were about three minutes of a thousand people who stuck it out till 11:30 at night cheering and screaming and hollering,” says Delaplaine. “The sense of relief and, in essence, glee—you could feel it, because the whole building was shaking. It was like somebody hitting a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth and pulling off the World Series.”
Due diligence should have made the decision easy, argues Peter Douglas, the commission’s executive director. “In my almost 40 years of being in coastal management, this is the project that is most inconsistent with the Coastal Act that I’ve ever seen,” he says. “And we told the TCA that for 15 years. They just didn’t want to hear it. They were in the business of building a toll road, and they were going to do it—full speed ahead, and damn the torpedoes.”
The massive activist onslaught, however, clearly tipped the vote. “The public’s involvement here was critical,” Douglas says. “Not only in terms of the research that was done and the information that they brought to our attention, but also just the outpouring of opposition to this. It makes a big difference when you have lots of people at a hearing who express their views.”
The road’s death knell, for all intents and purposes, occurred in December 2008, this time on the other side of the country, on Capitol Hill. The TCA appealed to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Carlos M. Gutierrez, who sustained the commission’s vote.
Today the TCA is researching its options and meeting with members of the coalition, but it is concerned that it will end up having to choose a more environmentally destructive route, because its “best” option was voted down. “We all want growth, but we don’t want any of the impacts that come with it,” says Jerry Amante, former chair of the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency arm of the TCA. “But that’s nonsensical. We have to provide for open space, but we also have to provide for pavement.”
This time open space won out. Standing near his former beachfront office at Trestles, Collamer spies a trash can with one of his bumper stickers stuck to the side. “That says, ‘Jerry was here,’ ” he points out proudly. He watches a surfer spinning in a complete circle on his ride to shore—a perfect pirouette. “Every surfer has this dream that they’re going to find that miracle spot where nobody else goes, with perfect waves, nice climate, and cold beer,” says Collamer. He found his long ago, and he’s not about to lose it.
Foothill-South’s path would have affected at least seven endangered or threatened species, including the following, by removing or disturbing their habitat.
A threatened species of herb in the lily family, the thread-leaved brodiaea is native to California. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Foothill-South would have had an impact on about 180 individual plants.
Arroyo toads have been extirpated from 75 percent of their range. Several populations of the endangered amphibian live in San Onofre State Beach along creeks, in the vicinity of Foothill-South’s route.
Coastal California Gnatcatcher
(Polioptila californica californica)
The Fish and Wildlife Service determined that Foothill-South would have removed more than 300 acres of coastal sage scrub—important habitat for at least 31 pairs of the threatened coastal California gnatcatcher.
Southern California Steelhead Trout
The road’s path would have crossed two creeks designated as critical habitat for an endangered population of the anadromous West Coast southern steelhead trout.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
More than 2,300 Important Bird Areas have been designated in all but three U.S. states, and roughly 75 percent of those offer some kind of public access. One of the best ways to support IBAs is to go birdwatching in one near you, then log the species you see into eBird, a database that tracks avian distributions. Also, help your local Audubon chapter or state IBA coordinator in adopting an IBA, which supports conservation at those sites. To learn more, click here and check out BirdLife’s Important Bird Areas Americas, a new directory to IBAs in the Western Hemisphere.
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