The plan to balance conservation and development in Coachella Valley

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: striking a balance between development and conservation to protect the desert ecosystem of the Coachella Valley in California.

Special correspondent Cat Wise has the story.

CAT WISE: The views from Chino Canyon high above Palm Springs are grand. The rocky hillsides are home to the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep and a number of other species. But this tranquil canyon has long been an environmental battleground.

NICKIE MCLAUGHLIN, Friends of Palm Springs Mountains: If the project had been completed, you would have been looking at a 500-room hotel, a five-star resort, and all surrounded by an 18-hole golf course.

CAT WISE: Nickie McLaughlin heads up a local nonprofit that recently purchased 600 acres of privately owned land in the canyon to prevent that development.

NICKIE MCLAUGHLIN: There will be nothing here. It will be preserved as it is in perpetuity. This was a huge success.

CAT WISE: The push to save Chino Canyon is part of a much larger environmental conservation effort unfolding in Coachella Valley, a 45-mile stretch of desert dotted with upscale cities like Palm Springs, as well as areas of deep poverty.

The population here is expected to almost double in the next 20 years. Golf courses and condos butt up against fragile desert ecosystems.

TOM KIRK, Coachella Valley Association of Governments: In a lot of places throughout this country, we know that we have done development perhaps in a rash and vast way. In the Coachella Valley, we didn't want to do that.

CAT WISE: Tom Kirk heads up the local government agency now managing a plan that took more than 10 years to develop and that will be on the books 75 years into the future.

It's called the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan. Nearly 2,000-pages long, it is essentially a huge compromise between government agencies, private landowners and developers, scientists, and environmental groups.

How did you bring everyone together?

TOM KIRK: They were brought together perhaps not by choice, but by need. Before there was a plan, every project was evaluated on its own. It would take a lot of time. There'd be a lot of uncertainty. Today, instead of dealing with every project individually, we look at a million acres at the same time.

CAT WISE: Kirk, who brought us to a now preserved area called Whitewater Canyon that had been slated to be an ATV park, showed me how the habitat plan works.

TOM KIRK: You can actually develop anywhere in the plan, but it is very difficult to do so in conservation areas, and very easy to do so, relatively, on the valley floor.

CAT WISE: Out of the million or so acres in the valley, 700,000 have been designated as conservation areas, where the land is kept mostly pristine. Outside of the conservation areas, development can go forward in a timely manner because the necessary endangered species permits have already been secured.

The plan is designed to ensure the survival of 27 endangered and threatened species, large and small animals, rare plants, and one little desert dweller well known in these parts, the fringe-toed lizard.

CAMERON BARROWS, University of California, Riverside: Here's a little baby fringe-toed lizard, just hatched probably this past fall.

CAT WISE: I met up with one of the few people who has a special permit to catch this endangered species, Cameron Barrows. He's an ecologist who is monitoring with a team of scientists how the protected species are faring under the plan.

CAMERON BARROWS: Even though we have a finite number of species that we're trying to protect here, we're really trying to protect the entire ecosystem. We're measuring everything. We want to make sure that this is an intact system. We don't want to be able to say in 75 years, you know, we forgot about that mouse, and it went extinct. Oh, well.

CAT WISE: Barrows was on the scientific advisory committee that provided guidance about which areas of the valley need to be protected, an effort he says that charted new ground in conservation science.

CAMERON BARROWS: We're striking this balance between habitat and development. And this was one of the first places in the nation that tried to really strike an effective balance. But, to do that, we had to apply the best science we possibly could.

Nature is complex. It's really complex. And to be able to say this patch is enough or this level of connection is enough is really challenging to do that.

CAT WISE: This underpass behind me plays an important role in the habitat plan. It allows animals on this side of busy Interstate 10 to move safely to the other side. It is one of a number of so-called wildlife corridors that are scattered throughout the valley.

But ensuring the protected areas are connected in perpetuity has been an ongoing effort. About 25 percent of the land was privately owned when the plan went into effect in 2008. Landowners are not forced to sell, but if they do, they are compensated at market rates, or they can pursue minimal development approved by the plan. So far, tens of millions of dollars have been spent to secure about 90,000 acres, or a third of the designated conservation areas.

Still, many landowners, developers, and even some cities in the valley initially opposed the plan due to the limits on development.

GRETCHEN GUTIERREZ, Desert Valley Builders Association: There was some struggles. Nothing is ever easy when you take on a project of this size.

CAT WISE: Gretchen Gutierrez is CEO of the Desert Valley Builders Association.

GRETCHEN GUTIERREZ: Right now, what you're seeing is the first phase, which is models. And there's going to be 166 single-family houses, single and two stories, in this development.

CAT WISE: The permitting process here went fairly quickly and no lawsuits were filed. And that's why Gutierrez says developers eventually got on board.

GRETCHEN GUTIERREZ: What it's provided for our members is the surety that they can move their projects forward. I don't think anyone wants to see the plastification of any of the communities out here, or the paving over of the world with concrete.

But, at the same point in time, you need to have continued growth in terms of new residences, in terms of new businesses, so that it all gives you a good quality of life.

CAT WISE: Developers now pay a fee for each property they build, and that money goes towards purchasing more land in the conservation areas. Additional funds come from a variety of sources, including government grants.

While many in the valley agree the plan is working, whether it can hold up over the long run is up for debate. Recently, plans for a new housing development within this conservation area were submitted to the county for consideration. The project called Paradise Valley would back up to Joshua Tree National Park on one side, and the area is considered critical habitat for the threatened desert tortoise.

The development highlights one of the gray areas of the plan: In the large conservation areas, up to 10 percent of the land can be developed. The developer, Glorious Land Company Enterprises, declined to speak with us on camera, but provided a written statement.

It reads in part that the development will incorporate new urbanism and smart growth concepts, and that planners and environmental consultants for the project are in consultation with regulatory agencies.

Cameron Barrows is one of a number of scientists and local environmental groups opposed to the development.

CAMERON BARROWS: Without any question, the tortoise population will decline if that happens. It's incumbent on all of us, the scientists, as well as everybody else that's involved in this plan, to sit down with these folks on a regular basis and say, remember why we're doing this. Remember why you got to do this development or that development, because the plan is here.

CAT WISE: The proposed development still faces extensive review before any ground is broken, but many here will be watching closely for how things play out as conservation efforts continue.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Coachella Valley, California.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Coachella Valley's plan was among the first of its kind when it was developed, but, in recent years, the strategy has been catching on. There are now more than 1,000 plans that seek to protect single and multiple species.

Efforts in the valley got a boost when President Obama named three national monuments in Southern California, and one of them overlaps with the conservation plan.

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