Press "Enter" to skip to content

A Noxious Species: Plastic Greens

The land war in Southern California reaches back at least to the early 1990s. In those years, the big developers — Pardee, Bren Home, McMillan, Standard American, and the Irvine Land Company were building sprawling new cities on what was left of the delicate canyons, mesas and wetlands of California's coast. Pushing back, some tiny environmental groups fought the real estate octopus with legal challenges, protest, and endangered species listings. Southern California was, and remains, a hot spot of environmental destruction. Enter the California gnatcatcher, denizen of coastal sage scrub, emblem of scores of threatened and endangered animals and plants. The developers screamed that the bird could not be allowed to hold up the pace of coastal decimation. Something had to give. The Endangered Species Act had to go.

The developers' Sacramento and Washington friends told them otherwise: wildlife is politically popular. It was going to take a village — a Potemkin Village. For the public, the impression had to be created that the damaged environment was being protected and restored, while in the boardrooms, the land developers and lumber companies needed to remain confident of their expanding profits. A new practice of environmentalism had to take shape, one that would be guided by “collaboration and cooperation,” rather than confrontation and lawsuit. A new class of guides, enviro-fixers and brokers emerged, lushly funded by the same corporations that filled Pete Wilson, George Bush and Bill Clinton's coffers.

With love, from Pete and Bruce

In California, the Potemkin village is called the Natural Communities Conservation Planning Initiative. Dreamt up by Pete Wilson and Bruce Babbitt, in essence it allows developers to “take” (destroy) endangered species and their terrain, if they promise to somehow “mitigate” the destruction. The initiative allows for giant-sized Habitat Conservation Plans, a kind of exemption for private landholders allowed under section 10 of the Endangered Species Act. In each Southern California county, a board of governments, planning authorities, developers, and representatives of state and federal agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service and the State Department of Fish and Game, is supposed to design a system of linked preserves. These set aside lands are supposed to provide permanent and viable homelands for threatened birds, plants and animals. Cagily, Wilson and Rabbit took a page from the book of the best conservation biologists, who’d long ago understood that large, whole, working environments are needed for species to recover. The gnatcatcher, the arroyo toad, the quino checkerspot butterfly, and many more, would all be saved, Bruce Babbitt claimed when he announced the plan, because developers would do the right thing if they were given the right incentives and not backed in to a corner by environmental regulations.

They were given incentives. Natural communities planning allows developers to “take” species by cutting deals, often remarkably crude ones. They can swap or sell land into a habitat preserve in return for the right to develop on or next to sensitive land. In practice, the swapped land doesn't have to be of prime quality — it can be undesirable or left-over. It need not be the most critical parcel to the endangered species. In some cases, for example, in Orange County, builders have been able to use lands already owned by the public as “reserves” against their takings. In others, they have been able to count land they had already designated as open space as “mitigation.” Double-dipping, as we call it. Developers can build concrete culverts as connecting wildlife corridors, or simply label and asphalt highway as a path for animals' movements. Most important, special protections are built in for the land speculators: after a development has been approved, no further legal environmental limits can be placed it for fifty years in San Diego County — longer in the Riverside and Orange County versions of the plan. This “no surprises” clause means that no matter what happens to a species, a watershed, or in the world of science, nothing will interfere with the owner's ability to profit from that piece of land. But nature is one big surprise, and in Southern California's badly depleted, overbuilt landscapes, natural communities planning is proving to be one big mess.

A place at the table

The Wilson-Babbitt plan offered the building industry and real estate speculators opportunities to bend environmental regulation on an unprecedented scale because it gave them an official and recognized “place at the table.” Along with carefully selected moderate environmental organizations, they were “stake holders” as the giant habitat plans were pieced out. Before, they had wheeled and dealt out of the public eye, in Washington and smaller Babylons. Now, they told Fish and Wildlife, cities, counties and environmentalists which land would be preserved and written off as a tax deduction, and which would be developed. And they got to advertise these wonderful “wildlands” adjacent to their sprawling new cities. (The Irvine Company's web page provides particularly nauseating examples.)

Many of Washington's big green organizations were generally enthusiastic. This was no shocker. As Alexander Cockburn, Ken Silverstein and Jeffrey St. Clair have written, the national environmental organizations have been marinating in swamps of corporate money for years. And these biggies — notably The Nature Conservancy — played a very important role in giving habitat planning good cover. Not incidentally, The Nature Conservancy has an enormous financial interest in the various plans going forward, since it is active in acquiring and managing much of the swapped habitat, notably in Orange County. As the wise use movement gurus Ron Arnold and Alan Gottleib point out in “Trashing the Environment,” The Conservancy is an incredibly wealthy real estate firm in its own right, profits from its land deals with the government, and often works by devious means. (Arnold and Gottleib are anti-environmentalist to the point of being nutty, but they have done solid research on The Nature Conservancy that all environmentalists should read.)

So there was little public criticism from the influential national organizations. Article after article celebrating the wonders of working together and an end to the “stalemates” in California issued from the magazines and fund raising mailings of the big greenies. Not that all the environmentalists were compliant. Michael Soule, an eminent biologist and one of the first to argue that species recovery depends on huge, linked habitat preserves, called the NCCP initiative a science-free fraud. Earth Firsters, a few small Southern California groups, and property rights activists complained publicly.

Another effect of the Wilson-Babbitt plan was to create a new layer of deal makers, precisely because the process required often hostile forces to “collaborate” in a weird harmonization. Small landowners were sometimes recalcitrant, fearing they might be forced to sell their property to into a preserve at below market prices. (If they had any experience with The Nature Conservancy, they were right to be worried.) Large landowners wanted the best deal. There were dozens of local conservation groups; some, like Save Our Forests and Ranchlands and Spirit of the Sage Council got suspicious when they took a look at whether the preserves would really let rare and wild places thrive. Conservation biologists and professional ecologists were hostile because they knew the plan put horse-trading before science, and as practicing field scientists they were aware of how tentative and inadequate their own predictions about restoration, survival, and recovery really are. All these people had to be convinced that the Natural Communities Conservation Planning initiative was the best hope for the more than eighty threatened and endangered plants and animals in Southern California. If they could not be convinced, these folks had to be silenced, marginalized and pushed away from the negotiating table.

Meantime, U. S. Fish and Wildlife held meetings for its own employees, putting pressure on them to learn the “new way of doing business,” including “thinking about consensus” around ecosystems rather than listing species. Knowledgeable Fish and Wildlife scientists and other employees were silenced. Jobs were at stake; for some independent scientists, contracts were at stake. Some university biologists who objected to the plans were eased off the review panels.

There was a wicked messenger

So the gates opened for the wicked messengers, the people who would devote themselves to helping the deals sound good in the press, look good on paper, reflect glory on the elected officials and contain the grassroots greens. It was most important that these water carriers and the go-betweens appear not only green but local. U. S. Fish and Wildlife could not appear to be telling property owners what they could and couldn't do with their land, and at the same time, it was also important for the political process that the big developers not seem to be running the show, although that veneer was and remains impossibly thin. Wilson and Babbitt had prepared the ground for a new, noxious species, a tangle of fake greenery in the form of conservation “leagues,” “alliances” and “coalitions”.

I'm sure such green false-fronts exist all over the state, and for that matter, all over the nation. But because the California initiative, and especially San Diego County's Multiple Species Conservation Plan variants, are the biggest test runs around the Endangered Species Act, the plastic greens have had a particularly pernicious effect here. By calling themselves the leaders, they have given the endorsement of so-called “local environmentalists” to pathetic compromises. In some cases they have actively supported horrendous new projects. They have called out critics as divisive and irrational, and helped the press label committed grassroots activists extremists. Perhaps worst of all, they have helped squander a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars on plans that will probably fail to achieve species recover.

Though by no means unique, the Endangered Habitats League is the paradigmatic example of green vinyl in the Southland. The League emerged in 1991 from an Audobon Society/Natural Resources Defense Council effort to list the California gnatcatcher. After the listing, and with funding from the World Wildlife Fund and the Audobon Society, Endangered Habitats went on to be a key representative of environmental groups in the multi-county NCCP process. But activists who participated in early meetings say it was never quite clear who had the mandate to elect the League’s director, Dr. Dan Silver, M.D., to take the reins, nor are they quite sure how he’s kept his leading role brokering land swaps, purchases, mitigation, and donations in Orange County, Riverside and San Diego Counties. Silver and the San Diego director, Michael Beck, have close ties to The Nature Conservancy and to the Big Greens. They receive environmental awards of doubtful merit, and bestow similar honors on politicians with dicey environmental voting records, especially in election years. (Actually, most San Diego politicians have terrible environmental voting records overall.) In San Diego County, where a knock-down, drag-out war over back country zoning is being fought as I write, the League is in tight with the private Building Industry Association, as well as the Mayor's office and the County Board of Supervisors, notoriously pro-development and ethically challenged public bodies. Silver, Beck and their friends are carrying water for Southern California's biggest developers and calling it nature-saving.

The front

Dan Silver claims that The Endangered Habitats League is a grassroots membership organization. This conflicts sharply with the way it is regularly and approvingly described in the press, variously as an “environmental coalition,” a green “consortium,” “an alliance” or “representing an alliance of environmental groups.” Silver says the League has about 400 members, mostly individuals, and a few grassroots organizations. “But we do not represent the organizations.” When I point this contradiction out to him, he says “The press has it wrong.” Who is in charge of describing an organization to the press, if not the director? Can I see his list of member organizations? “Sorry, I'm too busy. I don't have a secretary.”

The League has an office on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, but no office or phone-book listing in San Diego. Linked to dozens of enviro webpages, the League has no website of its own, and offers no detailed public information about the organization’s makeup, policies or if and how one can join. It has posted some old newsletters on the web at http://www.exo/~dsilver/. Although Silver says they do, none of the newsletters I've read announce regular or occasional local meetings. They do announce an annual meeting. Nor do the newsletters solicit concrete participation, but in sluggish prose, they say things along the line of “we are making slow but steady progress and we'll keep you posted.” A search of the exhaustive CD-ROM data base for the San Diego Union-Tribune turned up no public meeting announcements between the League's founding year, 1991, and 2000. But it did turn up plenty of articles –- scores — where either Dr. Silver or Mr. Beck is described as representing “the environmental community” and saying “It’s a sound plan for the environment” about one land deal or another.

The Endangered Habitats League is a registered 501C(3), that is, a non-profit charitable organization, and according to the papers and IRS forms it submits to the California Secretary of State and the State Registry of Charitable Trusts, it has had the same board of six directors since it incorporated in 1993. These six are reelected every two years. Beck and Silver are the two salaried and active members, and the treasurer is paid for doing the books. Donations to the League are fifty per cent tax-deductible.

When I phoned Dan Silver to ask if he could send me a copy of the League's annual reports, press packets, and old newsletters, he was reluctant, saying they didn't really have any reports or press packets, but he would try to send me a few recent newsletters. Too much trouble to dig up that stuff. It's a small office, he explained, no staff, no xerox machine. I think it is illegal for a 501c(3) to deny a member of the public access to the annual report. But I didn't push it. I called Attorney General Bill Lockyer's office for their tax returns.

This is the United States, and anybody who wants to form an organization for any purpose can form one. You can call your outfit whatever you want. If you want to form a tax-exempt foundation to expand public understanding of why the little gray men set their spaceships down in Wyoming and definitely not in New Mexico, you are by law allowed to. But you have to file papers of incorporation, and you have to report your purpose, your activities, and in a vague sort of way, how you spend your money. In their filings and newsletters, the League states that it is devoted to “community outreach” furthering the success of the Natural Communities Conservation Planning process. Its main purpose is “protection for natural habitats through collaborative conflict resolution. ” This means touting and furthering the Wilson Babbitt end run around the Endangered Species Act. Let’s pause to consider the paradox of that last phrase “collaborative conflict resolution.” In Southern California, the land itself is at the center of intense political conflict. The prerogatives of the big developers have hit the wall of public sentiment in favor of the environment. There’s no getting around it. So the question becomes: who has to collaborate and resolve conflict with whom, and on what terms? You can’t ride two horses with one behind.

Through a glass darkly

Looking at the League’s 990 forms is intriguing and mystifying. Despite its grassroots membership front, Endangered Habitats League tax forms (IRS 990) reveal that after a slow start in the early 1990s, it has had plenty of money, certainly much more than some of the tiny organizations battling for the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act. In 1998, the Endangered Habitats League received $183,000 in “contributions” “from public sources,” that is, private donations and foundation grants. Most of this went to salaries and a lumped category called “program services”. Mr. Beck and Dr. Silver pay themselves about $26,000 a year each, not much of a salary in pricey Southern California. The League doesn't give any grants, or scholarships nor pay benefits to anyone. It says it doesn't share facilities, resources or money or staff with any other organizations. It doesn’t pay retirement, assess or collect membership dues; it has hired the occasional consultant, but didn’t in 1998. It spent small amounts on legal fees ($15,000) and on a grant writer ($6,000). Beck and Silver attend conferences and they talk on the phone a lot. Their phone bill for 1998 was just under $7,000. Reporter and editor Jeff St. Clair’s phone bill is about $2,000 a year. “They must have a phone fetish,” says Jeff.

Tellingly, the League says it doesn't hire lobbyists. But this obscures the fact that by any reasonable definition of the term, they are lobbyists — they fly around to meetings a lot, probably in Washington and Sacramento; they pop off to visit with Bruce Babbitt himself; they meet in closed sessions in San Diego with agency officials and elected officials. And, in their role as Endangered Habitats League leaders, they endorse candidates for political office. Most recently, they endorsed Ron Roberts, head of the San Diego Board of Supervisors who is running for mayor. This is illegal for a 501(C)3.

Back to the cash box. In addition to grants of cash and securities, the EHL received more than $274,000 in donated services, equipment or facilities, pushing their total revenues up past $450,000 for '98. The League did not report just what this donation consisted of. Could it be an office? An airplane? Real estate? Cars? They really don’t have a xerox machine? Someone is taking a big, big tax deduction.

The Attorney General does not reveal the names of donors and contributors on the IRS 990. These are blacked out, just like in an FBI file. So now we turn to the Foundation Center’s data bases on grants and giving. Hefty and repeated grants have come over the League’s transom in the last five years from the James Irvine Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation. At minimum, EHL pulled down $50,000 in 1997 from Hewlett, along with $22,500 from the Homeland Foundation; in 1998, it received $150,000 from Hewlett, to be spread over three years, and $100,000 from Irvine, to be spread over two years; in 2000, Irvine gave the League another $150,000 to tide them over through 2001. Between those two major foundations alone, Endangered Habitats League was supported to the tune of nearly $100,000 per year over the last four years. There are smaller grants from other foundations and organizations, and doubtless from individual donors. But $100k a year is a lot of simoleans.

None of the League's newsletters I slogged through announce these enormous grants to the membership or the public. Why not? Setting that question aside for the moment, here's another. What’s wrong with using big grants to support an environmental “membership group”? Can’t big grant money be used to do good things? First off, this money isn’t clean if you know anything about the politics of the donors. The James Irvine Foundation derives directly from the Irvine Company's nearly endless Orange County real estate developments, office building projects, and Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs, a form of stock market mutual fund for real estate speculators). The company took in more than a billion dollars in profits in 1998. Irvine is the company that benefited the most from the Orange County NCCP, a plan which The Nature Conservancy brokered and Endangered Habitats publicly supported (representing the environmental community, of course). In 1996, to Irvine president Donald Bren's great satisfaction, the plan went through allowing Irvine to construct high-tech industry parks, roads, new towns housing tens of thousands of people, and fancy resorts in the middle of gnatcatcher territory. At the time, Silver told the press that this showed the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act! The next year, Irvine Foundation money makes its way to the Endangered Habitats League, doubtless with a note saying “Keep up the good work. ”

The $85.4 million the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation dispensed in 1998 came directly from the computer and electronics fortune. The Hewlett and Packard families own extensive western cattle ranches, among other wealth; The Hewletts and their Foundation are notorious for opposing reform of federal timber and grazing policies, and this reactionary position is unpopular with the most timid of closet enviros. Here we have at least one reason why the Endangered Habitats League doesn't announce any of its big grants, at least from Hewlett.

Can you do good things with bad money? As I've already pointed out, the NCCP initiative for which Endangered Habitats League has labored loyally is not a good thing in general, in particular, nor in its local variations. Dan Silver disagrees: “It really depends on whether you think the glass is half empty or half full.” The glass may be more than half empty. Not only do the habitat plans let developers trash the environment, but in actual fact, there's little money for new land acquisition to make the preserves. To the extent that the plans do set aside land for endangered species, there is no funding or provision for monitoring species recovery. What strapped government agency wants to monitor downward trends after it's been implicated for years in all the glowing p.r.? Nor is there money for habitat management, in the form of fire or weed removal, for example. Plant biologist Ellen Bauder says that “the Sweetwater Fish and Wildlife Service Refuge [part of the San Diego plan] is solid weeds, some of them noxious, a legal status. It would take many millions of dollars and decades to improve this weed-infested, over-grazed preserve land” so rare plants could recover. There's no money for control of access, and in many areas, the distinction between open space, where you can ride your horse, your jeep or your ATV, and a wildlife preserve, which demands minimum impacts, is non-existent. In fact, this distinction is purposefully blurred in the public's mind when politicians talk about habitat plans — they usually talk in terms of the benefits of open space. There's no control at all of some reserves: The City of San Diego, which passed its own plan in 1998, has been completely negligent in protecting its own rare vernal pools, for example. After setting them aside, it’s been issuing developers permits to bulldoze them! Then, again, there's the “no surprises” clause. So, no, the NCCP as it has worked out is not a good thing for a so-called grassroots membership group to spend bad money working toward. Many honest and broke grassroots organizations are fighting the plans in the courts. Silver won't join, saying “I just don't understand their rationale.”

Charity begins and ends at home

The reason he doesn't is probably Irvine and Hewlett and their endless money. Both foundations are profoundly interested in shaping environmental policy in the West, and Silver clearly wants to be aboard the policy making train. Irvine, for transparent reasons, has a special focus on the Southland. Charity begins at home and the foundations watch out for the interests of the parent companies and kindred corporations, trying to shape environmental and land use law in ways that will not limit their profits. Lots of things could put a crimp in corporate real estate's style: stringent local zoning, strict enforcement of state and federal environmental regulations, sane housing and transportation policies, intense grassroots activism. But the biggest cramp of all was and maybe still is the federal Endangered Species Act.

It's useful to read the foundations’ “granting priorities.” For example, Irvine’s include “smart growth and livable communities.” Sounds good, but does that mean more Irvines? The Foundation “works with a network of regional, statewide and national organizations dedicated to achieving more sustainable use of the land, across all of California's varied landscapes.” In other words, there’s a land use crisis in Southern California which the Irvine Company helped cause. Having noticed the public outrage at the disaster, the Irvine Foundation now gives money to groups that will help guide public opinion toward some superficial controls on California's out of control development, with the hopes of reining in the citizen initiatives and lawsuits that have driven developers from LA to Tijuana crazy.

Irvine has given millions upon millions to engineer the public understanding of environmental issues. For example, in 1999, Irvine gave $4,750,000 grants for “sustainable land use” projects and education. But listen to the sound of public opinion being sculpted: The Foundation supports “regional leadership” “community visioning workshops” “community strategy work teams,” plans to “strengthen civic capacity” around environmental issues. They also aim to improve “public understanding by improving environmental reporting,” “by “engaging leaders in dialogue” and “supporting coalition building.” The overall picture is this: The Irvine Company, through the Irvine Foundation, is penetrating the public discussion of the environmental crisis at many different points. Big grants from a real estate company to train journalists who cover the environment? It should give us the chills.

What about The Hewlett’s Foundation's charitable priorities? Hewlett recognizes that “natural resource limits are well in sight” in the West. The Foundation “supports constructive change in environmental policy,” and its objective is to “seek out and support organizations capable of effectively promoting a change to sustainable policies … to enrich the array of policy options to achieve the changes necessary.” A special goal is to “encourage methods other than litigation and political advocacy for environmental solutions.” Anyone for collaborative conflict resolution?

Hewlett spreads a lot of money around, even to some good outfits like Island Press. But finally, Hewlett’s programs focus on groups that have a larger than local focus. They are not interested in small communities, “single issues” or single watershed projects. They give grants to groups that work across large regions and bridge ecosystem boundaries. Sounds good, but it is precisely the long-haul, local environmentalists who know the most, scientifically and historically, about the crisis of their ecosystem. Wisdom sits in places. People tied to places tend to care the most and fight the hardest for those places. They tend to get called uncompromising radicals. But even temperate grassroots greens won’t get any money from the Hewlett Foundation unless they come into the conflict-avoidant “consortium.” That would be the Endangered Habitats League or one of their hundreds of cousins.

In a second installment, I’ll detail some of the Endangered Habitats League's activities in San Diego County, and show why they've come into conflict (naughty word) with some of that area's least daunted environmentalists. And how is natural communities conservation planning doing in San Diego? And what have Hewlett and Irvine gotten for their money? (Hints: a) not very well b) something, but not as much as they'd hoped.)

One Comment

  1. Betsy Cawn July 14, 2019

    The unimpeachable Governor’s Office of Planning & Research and the California Environmental Protection Act ( have effectively destroyed real protections for endangered, threatened, and sensitive “species” for pure profit; add the Permit Streamlining Act, Enterprise Agencies (governmental rate-taking public service operations managing the “natural resources”) and “dependent special districts” whose separate initiatives are approved in the highly proscribed “piecemeal” process (tsk, we would never do that, now would we?), and you have the whole instruction manual for abuse of power.

    In the northernmost counties, incessant “diversion” of water resources from precious river systems to fill the insatiable gullets in the central valley and so-lo-Cal are destroying the magnificent Bay Delta and the many edible species it once supported — not to mention the entire family of salmon and steelhead once supporting indigenous peoples for thousands of years.

    Sadly, the faux environmentalists in our neck of the woods (in favor of the Tuleyome Land Trust and the State Water Resources Control Board “oversight” of the Snow Mountain Berryessa “wilderness” — i.e., key water producers next on the agenda for the taking) work hand-in-glove with these “decision makers,” and mitigate the heck out of those “negative declarations” with zero “mitigation monitoring and reporting plans.” Planning Commissioners, hand selected by the elected officials to focus on one purpose only — increasing property taxes — have convinced the public that their oversight of the major use permitting and general planning process is unchallengeable.

    I really appreciate the article, and look forward to “the rest of the story.” As always, long live the AVA.

    From the Dick Brennan Memorial Office of Doing Good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *