Marcia Grefsrud, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, is out at a conservation site for some local endangered species, like the California Tiger Salamander. They’re small, brown amphibians with bright yellow spots. But she doesn’t see any here today.
As the salamanders grow up, they move out of the wetlands and into the foothills and grasslands. They live in burrows left by ground squirrels and other mammals. There are populations of these salamanders across the state, from Santa Barbara to Yolo County. And they’re an important part of each of these ecosystems.
“Salamanders are helpful because they prey on these wide variety of insects and to help minimize crop damages and damages to other things,” says Grefsrud. “They keep the ecosystem in balance, along with all the other species that are in there.”
But now, California Tiger Salamanders are disappearing. Populations are in decline across California, and the species is listed as endangered by state and federal agencies.
That’s because of a lot of things, like pollution, climate change, and other factors. But their main threat is development.
Hawk Street is a quiet, suburban road in Livermore. At the end of the street, the asphalt becomes a dirt trail, wetlands, and a golden hill. This land is home to a group of Tiger Salamanders and other endangered species. And Developer Lafferty Communities plans to build 42 sprawling, Tuscan-styled houses right on this hillside.
This land is zoned residential and it’s privately owned, so it’s legal to build here. But these salamanders have been protected by state law since 2010. So the city of Livermore says the project can only go forward on one condition: Lafferty has to preserve a similar amount of healthy California Tiger Salamander habitat somewhere else.
Steve Stewart, Livermore's planning manager, says this kind of trade — where developers protect one place where endangered species live so they can build on another — is called compensatory mitigation. It’s a key part of California’s conservation laws. Steve oversees development in Livermore, and he says he supports the policy.
“I don’t know if there’s a better way to do it,” Stewart says. “I mean the planning and environmental professionals in the business are doing the best that we can with the resources and tools we have to try and have meaningful regional conservation.”
Lafferty Communities did not respond to a request for comment.
Compensatory mitigation is supposed to be a last resort. Killing members of an endangered species should only happen when it’s unavoidable. In this case, a Livermore citizen’s group called Save the Hill says the compensation being required by the city isn’t enough and there are better options. The group is suing the city to block the project from going forward.
“Our argument is that, in approving the development, the city failed to evaluate and consider the impacts,” says Jessica Blome, an environmental attorney working with Save the Hill. “The environmental review focused almost exclusively on impacts to endangered species during development, but not on impacts once this pristine, hilly land is converted into basically a concrete jungle.”
Jessica says the hill Lafferty wants to develop is part of a larger ecosystem. The land around the hill is also home to endangered species. And Jessica says that preserving land somewhere else won’t offset the full impact of Lafferty’s development here.
“It’s not a compensatory act, it’s a capitulation,” says Jessica. “It certainly won’t be able to serve the same number of animals and provide the same level of habitat as it would have otherwise.”
Save the Hill’s case is in the early stages of litigation in the Alameda County Superior Court. Ultimately, it may not succeed in stopping this development, but Jessica says the lawsuit is about more than this one project. She says it’s also about a larger debate over this approach to conservation.
“This should spark a broader conversation about the value of compensatory mitigation when those compensatory lands are not equal to what’s being lost,” says Jessica.
Compensatory mitigation has created a lot of protected land for endangered species, but it still allows for the deaths of members of those species and the loss of important habitats.
That raises the question of which is more important — development or conservation? It’s a hard question to answer, especially here in the Bay Area where the need for housing continues to conflict with the need to protect the environment.