New 25-year conservation plan looks at the county’s ecological future
A long history of environmental protection in Santa Cruz County has helped spare much of its land from development. More than a century ago, Big Basin—the first state park in California—was founded in the Santa Cruz Mountains, saving a large number of old-growth redwoods from logging. Today, 27 percent of the county’s land is in parks, public land, or is otherwise protected through conservation easements.
Nevertheless, many in Santa Cruz see the natural environment as under threat. The Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, a local environmental nonprofit established in 1978, estimates that by 2035, the population in the Monterey Bay region will increase by 146,000, 35,000 of which will be in Santa Cruz County. More people means increased urban and rural development—more houses, more roads, and greater stress on already taxed natural resources. Add to this the unknowns of climate change, and Santa Cruz County could be facing a challenging future.
“A lot of the threats to our resources in Santa Cruz County are not obvious to the eye,” says Land Trust Executive Director Terry Corwin. “It’s a slow motion train wreck.”
To help better understand these threats, and to help prioritize conservation goals, the Land Trust has put together a 25-year Conservation Blueprint for the county. The 200-page Blueprint took almost two years to develop and it represents the work of nearly 300 people, including at least 100 technical experts. With the help of a computer database, the Land Trust aggregated the experts’ scientific knowledge to identify “multibenefit areas”—the most ecologically significant areas in the county. Of these areas, the Land Trust estimates about 50,000 acres deserve protection over the next 25 years.
“Once we put all that information into this single database, we were able to create a map where certain areas popped,” says Corwin. “We know if we can do conservation in these areas we are going create benefits not only to biodiversity, but we can probably address working lands, maybe a recreation component, and water.”
None of the recommendations are binding, but the Land Trust hopes the document will become a key resource for local government and conservation groups. County Supervisor Mark Stone says the Blueprint will help community leaders to better understand how ecological systems interconnect. “It’s a way of looking at the conservation needs for our county and it will guide jurisdictions as they make land use decisions,” Stone says.
According to the Blueprint, some of the most important areas to protect are those that impact water resources. Almost all of Santa Cruz County’s water comes from within the county’s boundaries. Local watersheds are crucial for drinking water and agriculture, and they provide important habitat for numerous species, some of which are endangered.
However, the water situation in Santa Cruz is strained. According to the Blueprint, 32 water bodies in the county are currently listed or proposed for listing as failing to meet state water quality standards.
The reasons for this are varied. Roads and residential development can cause erosion, which deposits sediment in streams. Poorly functioning septic systems can lead to bacteria and nitrates entering the waterways. Agricultural runoff also enters our streams, causing additional sedimentation and, in some areas, leaking pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers into the water. And all of this pollution impacts marine habitats when it inevitably drains into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
The county is also suffering from a water shortage. About 80 percent of the water used here comes from underground aquifers; however, these groundwater basins are in overdraft—water is being taken out at a faster rate than it is being replenished. Overdraft can cause saltwater to seep into the groundwater, rendering the water unusable for agriculture.
Population pressures and climate change may very well exacerbate these problems. The Land Trust fears that more housing developments could cause additional erosion and contamination of waterways and put more strain on limited water resources. Some experts also fear climate change will cause a hotter, drier future.
This complex problem will require a multifaceted solution. The Blueprint outlines the numerous groups and organizations that are focused on protecting and conserving water resources, and lists their various projects. It also emphasizes that one of the most important ways the county can focus on preserving water resources is to conserve land in critical watershed areas. “Nature makes clean water,” explains Stephen Slade, deputy director of the Land Trust. “So that’s the reason we protect lands that feed into our water supply.” This means protecting lands where water is likely to percolate down and recharge groundwater, and undertaking stewardship projects to reduce sediment and pollution.
For the Land Trust, protecting these areas also helps achieve another fundamental goal: preserving biodiversity within the county.
With only 445 square miles of land, Santa Cruz County is the second smallest county in California—only San Francisco is geographically smaller. However, the county is home to 12,000 native plant species, of which 17 are found only here. Because of its varied topography, the county also has diverse wildlife, including 18 animal species found nowhere else. “We’re in this really important global biodiversity hotspot and recognizing how special this place is will be important for our community,” says Jodi McGraw, an ecologist and the science team leader for the project.
According to the Blueprint, however, some important habitat has already been lost, threatening the existence of already rare species. The habitats that remain are often fragmented by fences, highways, roads, and other urban and agricultural development. This can have dire impacts on species with wide ranges like the mountain lion, whose presence plays an important role in maintaining the diversity of the local ecosystem.
Additional development due to population increases could cause further habitat destruction or fragmentation. There is also a concern that local plant and animal species will be unable to adapt to a rapidly changing climate and rising sea levels.
The Blueprint identifies the threatened areas that have the highest value for protecting biodiversity, says McGraw. “The team agreed that some of the highest priorities are endemic systems, things that are nowhere else but in the county: the Santa Cruz sandhills, the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander ponds, the wetlands down in Watsonville.” Other important areas include the karst caves and the grasslands, which McGraw says are home to a lot of important species and are dwindling statewide.
Another suggested strategy for protecting biodiversity is creating wildlife corridors both between areas of intact habitat within Santa Cruz County and between the Santa Cruz Mountains and mountain ranges to the south and east. “Connected landscapes are important to climate change adaptation because species can migrate north and there is a lot of elevation gradient so that allows for some adaptation,” says Corwin. Wide-ranging species will also be able to migrate without having to cross busy roads, and connectivity can promote the genetic diversity necessary for species survival.
The Blueprint also has a series of assessments and recommendations regarding the protection of working lands, such as farmland and land used for timber production. It recommends the purchase of conservation easements from willing landowners and stewardship incentives to encourage landowners to preserve ecological values.
The final piece of the puzzle is to protect land that can be used for recreation, especially in underserved areas such as the South County. Open spaces improve the overall quality of life and tend to make communities healthier as parks and trails provide a good reason to get some exercise. The outdoor environment is also why so many people choose to live, work, or play here. So as the population continues to swell in Santa Cruz and surrounding counties, we’ll perhaps need even more places to go where we can get away from it all.
The Land Trust will give a public presentation on the Conservation Blueprint on June 2 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Simpkins Family Swim Center, 979 17th Ave., Santa Cruz. To download a copy of the Blueprint, visit landtrustsantacruz.org.