Sunday, December 13, 2015

Suburban Sprawl Continues Creep Across Desert

The revival of the housing market has renewed a perennial threat to desert wildlands - urban sprawl.  Developers are considering plans for large new suburban developments across the southwest, years after such large developments mostly stalled when the housing industry began to crash in 2006.  At a time when most of our efforts have been focused on protecting public lands from industrial-scale development, urban sprawl underscores the need for local efforts to protect open space under private ownership.

The NASA video above shows the extent of Las Vegas' urban sprawl since 1972.

Along the Mojave River in California, the Tapestry project could result in the destruction of nearly 9 square miles of juniper woodland and chaparral habitat in the Summit Valley to make way for at least 16,196 homes.  The area is popular for hiking, jogging, and mountain bike riding.  During environmental surveys, biologists observed or detected western pond turtles, coastal horned lizards, bobcats, mule deer, mountain lion, the endangered Arroyo toad, and over 100 species of birds.  The area also hosts many special status plant species, such as the San Bernardino Mountains owl's-clover.
The Tapestry project would build on the Victor Valley's sprawl, pushing southward toward the San Bernardino Mountains. Having grown up in the Victor Valley, I was a contributor to the area's sprawl in the 1980s, but it is also the place where I learned to appreciate the desert's beauty. As cities in the area grow and expand, I wish they would take a smarter approach to protecting these beautiful open places.
To the southeast, the La Entrada project threatens 2.8 square miles of desert habitat on the outskirts of the City of Coachella.  That project received approval from local authorities last year, and would impact desert dry wash woodlands and creosote bush scrub habitat.  Further to the east along Interstate 10, a Las Vegas-based developer is considering building the nearly 8,500 home Paradise Valley next to Joshua Tree National Park.  In the northwest Las Vegas Valley, Skye Canyon has already begun construction and will ultimately displace approximately 3 square miles of desert.

Desert grasslands in the western Mojave, like the example above in the Antelope Valley, predominantly fall under private ownership and are at risk of falling to urban sprawl and energy development.
For folks that are interested in protecting these wildlands lands that happen to exist on privately-owned land, multi-species habitat conservation plans (MSHCP) assembled by local governments offer an opportunity to identify and protect some of the most critical remaining habitat.  They establish a mechanism to purchase and protect some habitat on private lands.  The Coachella Valley has a plan in place, and the town of Apple Valley is developing one, for example.  However, you can generally count on these habitat conservation plans only setting aside the minimum land necessary to satisfy mitigation requirements and facilitating as much development as possible. 

Aside from organized conservation plans, the non-profit sector can purchase the land or purchase conservation easements on the land to protect the habitat, but aggregating meaningful amounts of habitat can take a lot of time and money.  Various land trusts and conservancies are involved in this type of work throughout the southwest, although funds for their work sometimes come from mitigation requirements for destructive projects.  So there is often still a trade-off involved - destroy these acres and protect these.

Over the past few years many of us have mobilized to speak up in favor of protecting our favorite desert places on public lands.  But land ownership is not in harmony with the beautiful continuity of desert valleys and washes, and some spectacular wildlands exist on privately-held lands.