Giving Nature Some Breathing Room

Fragrant fritillary on Coyote Ridge: photo courtesy of Stuart Weiss


March 25, 2021

We all need room to breathe: a period of rest in order for us to regain or increase strength. Nature needs that too. And the additional stress brought on by climate change has some natural environments needing a little more time than others.

At the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Agency (Habitat Agency) we’re in the business of protecting and enhancing habitat for endangered species. We are entrusted with protecting eighteen local wildlife and plant species and their habitat, and we’re committed to ensuring that they have the space needed for recovery.

A Holistic Approach to Protecting Listed Species and Enhancing Natural Resources

Created by a joint agreement between Santa Clara County, the cities of Morgan Hill, Gilroy, and San Jose, the Valley Transportation Authority, and Valley Water, the Habitat Agency is responsible for implementing the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Conservation Plan and Natural Community Conservation Plan (Habitat Plan). In short, the Habitat Plan – approved by these jurisdictions in 2013 – is both a plan for mitigation and enhancement.

Through a regulatory framework for local governments, districts, and landowners, it streamlines the necessary permitting process for projects that support economic development of the region. The permit fees paid mitigate for the habitat of the eighteen covered species affected by the projects.

The Habitat Plan takes a holistic approach to protecting listed species and enhancing natural resources. The latter is where the Natural Community Conservation Plan kicks in. Often referred to as the “gold standard” of ecological landscape scale conservation, it requires the enhancement or improvement of the overall condition of a species. 

The Habitat Plan’s conservation biology mission is landscape scale conservation, so habitat patch size matters as does creating wildlife corridors and refugia for wildlife, protecting biodiversity, building redundancy and resiliency into the landscape, and adaptive management. 

Currently, the Habitat Agency has conserved 6,500 acres. In 42 years at full Habitat Plan implementation, the Reserve System will protect an estimated 46,920 acres for the benefit of nine plant and nine wildlife species, natural communities, biological diversity, and ecosystem function.

Climate Change Driving Need for Paradigm Shift in Conservation

One of the principal challenges to our mission is climate change. It is a major threat to biodiversity and a big challenge to conservation. It affects species range, biology, abundances and community composition. 

Protected areas are critical instruments for safeguarding biodiversity, yet they are already proving to be insufficient in stopping changes to species composition now and into the future. That’s because these areas are geographically fixed and increasingly isolated in highly modified landscapes.

In the past, conservation primarily focused on preserving existing biodiversity patterns and acted reactively with respect to new threats. With the effects of climate change, we need a paradigm shift. A relatively straightforward and intuitive approach is to focus on identifying and protecting biodiversity in those areas least likely to undergo rapid climate-induced changes.

The Habitat Agency is in the process of developing policies and methodologies for five approaches to climate change adaptation that can be integrated into an updated Habitat Plan: 

  1. conserving the geophysical stage (current landform, bedrock, soil, and topography)
  2. protecting climatic refugia
  3. enhancing regional connectivity
  4. sustaining ecosystem process and function, and
  5. capitalizing on opportunities emerging in response to climate change.  

Biological Hotspots: Curbing Recreational Access is Ultimately a Public Benefit

As we embark on this paradigm shift, change in how we manage the landscape is inevitable. Wildlife needs refugia from human encroachment and a changing climate. One of those shifts is recognizing when recreation is not compatible with wildlife conservation. The first test of this change in approach is on the Habitat Agency’s most recent acquisition: the 2500-acre Tilton/Baird Ranch in the southwestern foothills of Coyote Valley. The ranch is a biological hot spot for rare and endangered plants, including only one of three occurrences in the world of the Santa Clara County endemic Coyote ceanothus, as well as for the Bay Checkerspot butterfly, American badger, Thompson big-eared bat, cougars, and golden eagles to name just a few of the wildlife species that call the ranch home. Because this property is a biological hotspot, certain areas of the ranch will be off limits to recreation. The Habitat Agency recognizes that wildlife, not unlike us, needs room to breathe too!

For over 25 years, Edmund Sullivan’s professional and academic experience has focused on natural resource conservation, wildlife ecology, habitat restoration, brownfield redevelopment, and sustainable economic development. Mr. Sullivan is the Executive Officer of the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Agency, actively implementing an Habitat Conservation Plan and Natural Communities Conservation Plan.

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