Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 25, 2008

Stanford unveils massive habitat plan

School applies for federal permit to develop some lands, preserve others

by Arden Pennell

A plan Stanford officials say could improve life for four threatened species while making it easier for the school to develop and build on campus was submitted to federal agencies for review in May.

The plan centers on protecting four threatened species found on the 8,180-acre campus — the California red-legged frog, the California tiger salamander, steelhead trout and the Western pond turtle.

Designed to comply with the Federal Endangered Species Act, the plan was more than a decade in the making, according to campus biologist Alan Launer, one of the authors. The Habitat Conservation Plan is publicly accessible online at http://hcp.stanford.edu.

If approved by federal agencies, the plan will award Stanford an "incidental take permit" lasting 50 years, allowing the school to develop environmentally sensitive lands despite possible harm to the species.

The 50-year permit would replace the current method of applying for such permits project-by-project, a lengthy and sometimes repetitive process, Launer said.

To mitigate the negative impacts of future development, the plan suggests creating three "accounts" of protected lands now, before building happens.

That includes two riparian accounts along San Francisquito and Matadero creeks, among others. Land totaling 360 acres abutting and including creeks would be dedicated to a permanent conservation easement, meaning it could never be developed.

Another account would be a 315-acre, 50-year no-build zone in the tiger-salamander habitat flanking Junipero Serra Boulevard.

These three accounts would earn the university "credits" to build on other environmentally sensitive lands in the future.

The sprawling campus, whose landscapes range from chaparral to woodlands, is divided in the plan into zones of varying environmental sensitivity. Developing in each would cost corresponding amounts of credit. Building in the well-developed center would be free.

The university has no firm building projects in the works, Launer said. He compared the land accounts to pre-paid gift cards that hold funds for future spending.

The Habitat Conservation Plan is currently being reviewed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

When those agencies issue a draft Environmental Impact Statement assessing the plan's effects on local flora and fauna, a 60-day public-comment period will begin, in which Stanford is required to hold open informational meetings on the plan.

That's still a few months away, perhaps at the end of the summer, according to Gary Stern of the fisheries service.

Stanford is not required to have its Habitat Conservation Plan publicly available now, before the agencies release their assessment, but did so as a good-faith gesture, Launer said.

"People don't trust us very much. ... We've been saying 'You can see it' for years and well, now here it is," he said.

School officials notified neighboring cities and have met with public bodies such as the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority to discuss the plan, according to Launer. They decided there was no reason not to post it online, he said.

Launer, a biologist who refers to unsmiling toads he photographed as "cranky" and who insisted on writing detailed descriptions of the threatened critters for the Web site, spoke enthusiastically about the plan.

It won't just protect the four species — it should also improve conditions for them, he said.

The proposed creekside conservation easements are an upgrade from current zoning, which varies by jurisdiction — Stanford lands are in two counties and several cities — and is in no cases permanent, he said.

The plan gives the school nearly "free reign" to step up conservation efforts for wildlife in creekside areas, including land currently leased agriculturally, he said.

Yet the easement could be troublesome to work with in the future, according to Ken Murray of the San Francisquito Joint Powers Authority.

The joint powers authority, which earlier criticized Stanford for not giving local agencies enough warning about its plan, is now happy with the university's open communication, Murray said.

But the easement could constrain construction of future flood-control barriers, he said.

Launer acknowledged the easement "adds a layer of paperwork" to attempts to build flood barriers — but said building would still be possible.

The plan also aims to nudge salamanders upland from their current habitat in the center of the developed campus into the foothills.

Stanford artificially fills Lake Lagunita — a grassy basin bordered by dorms, the golf driving range and Junipero Serra Boulevard — each winter and spring to keep a proper habitat for the salamanders. Yet hundreds die each year, squashed by cars when trying to cross Junipero Serra to migrate.

In recent years, the school has created eight artificial ponds in its undeveloped foothills to encourage breeding away from the busy road.

The school would continue conservation measures under the currently proposed plan, Launer said, striving in coming decades to establish salamanders in the foothills. That would mean fewer deaths — and maybe not having to keep Lake Lag full of precious water, he said.

Under the proposed plan, any development in the salamanders' habitat, labeled the "California Tiger Salamander Basin," would require Stanford to either spend credits from its land-based mitigation accounts, or to dedicate some of the salamander habitat to a permanent conservation easement.

Staff Writer Arden Pennell can be e-mailed at apennell@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Scott, a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 24, 2008 at 6:00 pm

This environmental campaign is just camouflage for Stanford. It covers itself with this environmental paperwork, which will satisfy government regulations while allowing itself to plan to develop and build on its lands. And while these plans aim to preserve and protect the salamanders and the frogs, Stanford (in its corporate landowner guise as the Stanford Land Management Company) has shown no willingness to assert leadership to reign in its leaseholder businesses in the Research Park and make them environmental leaders. Instead, over the years companies in the Research Park have dumped tons of pollutants at several dozen sites in the Research Park into the groundwaters, noxious liquids that will remain in the aquifers in Stanford lands and under private homes bordering the Research Park for decades. Stanford feigns inability to act on these matters, and it continues to allow these tenant companies to use unlimited amounts of extremely toxic materials that could be released and endanger the health and safety of a large number of homeowners and workers who might be caught in a cloud of poisonous gases.


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