Update on California’s 30X30 initiative: The good, the bad, and the ugly

In May 2021, Conservation Sense and Nonsense introduced California’s $11 billion investment in addressing climate change and protecting biodiversity by protecting 30% of land and coastal waters by 2030 (30X30). Since then, the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) held a series of workshops to explain the initiative and give the public an opportunity to provide feedback to CNRA.  Sixteen hundred Californians participated in those workshops, including me. Today I am reporting what I learned about the initiative and tell you my opinion of what I learned.

Good news always comes first

The Land Conservation Panel identified the opportunity to remediate degraded spaces that will address many of the objectives of the 30X30 initiative.  Many degraded spaces are found in poor communities that are exposed to toxic waste and pollution.  Eliminating public health hazards in these communities will not only improve their health, it will make those spaces available for recreational and other purposes.  Here are just a few of many such opportunities in California:

Superfund sites in California as of 2013. Source: Environmental Protection Agency
  • There are 94 toxic waste Superfund sites in California.  Where these sites are threatening the health and safety of the public they should be high priorities for remediation.  For example, nearly 30,000 corroding barrels of DDT were recently found on the ocean floor near Catalina Island.  The extent of that particular toxic dump was not known at the time the LA Times reported it, but investigating scientists speculated that as many as half a million barrels may have been dumped by the manufacturer of DDT.
  • There are 47,000 abandoned mine sites in California, according to the Bureau of Land management.  84% of those sites present physical safety hazards and 11% of the sites present environmental safety hazards.  Abandoned mine sites that are potential recreational areas in underserved communities should be considered high priorities for remediation.
  • The California Clean Water Act identifies “impaired waters.”  The list of impaired waters is long and it is alarming.  It identifies pollution with toxic substances such as mercury, diazinon, sewage from leaking septic tanks, sedimentation from erosion, run off of agricultural chemicals, etc.  Addressing these issues will reduce public health hazards and improve fish and wildlife habitat.  Most rivers in California are ultimately watersheds into the ocean, therefore cleaning up these “impaired waters” will also improve ocean health.  At this time of extreme drought and the expectation of continuing drought, water quality should be a high priority for the 30X30 initiative.
  • There are over 5,000 orphan oil wells in California with no known responsible operator.  Capping and retiring these oil wells would reduce health hazards and make the land available for recreational and other uses.  These abandoned oil wells are frequently found in economically disadvantaged areas such as Bakersfield and poor areas in the Los Angeles basin, which is all the more reason to remediate this blight on the landscape. 

The remediation of hazardous pollution would benefit Californians, reducing health hazards for humans and wildlife and potentially making land available for other useful purposes.  Remediating polluted, dangerous land must be a higher priority than funding the horticultural preferences of hobbyists with romantic notions about recreating a landscape that is long gone and cannot be replicated.  If we are to achieve durable objectives, we must have realistic expectations and goals that are consistent with current and anticipated climate conditions.  Thriving landscapes that do not require irrigation should not be replaced with fragile landscapes that require irrigation and access restrictions.  No land that requires pesticides to accomplish “conservation” goals can legitimately be called “conserved.”

Not so good indicators of destructive projects

Although the Summary Document of the Panel for Coastal Waters made vague references to the importance of “Linking protection of land and coastal ecosystems through adjacent terrestrial and marine protected areas,” the words “watershed” and “wetlands” do not appear in the Summary Document.  No specific suggestions were made to address the close relationship between coastal land and coastal waters.

The preservation and expansion of wetlands will reduce the flow of pollution from land to ocean by acting as a filter of runoff from the land.  Wetlands are also one of our chief defenses against rising sea levels if they are expanded to perform that function.  Wetlands are the nurseries of our fisheries and they provide essential habitat for wildlife.  Wetlands are also significant carbon sinks.  Yet the Summary Document makes no mention of these essential functions that contribute to healthy oceans.

Cleaning up the watersheds that are now draining toxic pollutants into the ocean is a more worthwhile endeavor than anything suggested by the Coastal Waters Summary Document. Most rivers in California are ultimately watersheds into the ocean, therefore cleaning up these “impaired waters” will also improve ocean health.  Many important fish species that migrate from ocean to rivers are killed or harmed by these hazardous contaminants.  The ocean is only as healthy as its watersheds.

Instead of addressing the opportunities to expand wetlands and cleaning up watersheds, the Coastal Waters Panel is proposing an outdated “restoration” approach that begins with killing plants and animals. The attempt to “restore” kelp forests is one of the few specific examples of possible projects that is mentioned in the Panel’s Summary Document.  Like most of these futile projects, that project begins by killing thousands (millions?) of the chosen scapegoat, purple urchins, predators of kelp.  Where urchins are killed kelp is being replanted.  Like most of these projects, the chosen method does not address the underlying causes for declining kelp forests that were killed by ocean heat waves.  Ocean heat waves are a consequence of inexorable climate change.  It is delusional to assume that the heat waves that killed the kelp will not occur again.  Furthermore, the massive die-off of sea stars from a mysterious “wasting syndrome” is an important factor in the explosion of urchin populations that are prey of sea stars.  As you might know, sea stars are making a comeback.  Sea Otters are also predators of urchins.  If their populations weren’t repeatedly suppressed by commercial fishing interests, urchins would have more predators.  In other words, present methods of “restoring” kelp forests are based on inadequate understanding of the food web and the underlying causes of the loss of kelp forests.  Is anyone trying to breed a more heat-tolerant variety of kelp?  Is anyone looking for a functional equivalent in warmer waters?  In other words, the loss of kelp forests is a serious problem, but the methods being used to address it are amateurish and futile.

The Ugly:  Composition of 30X30 panels is deeply flawed

There are representatives of organizations on two 30X30 panels that promote and participate in island eradication projects such as the Farallon Islands project that proposes to kill mice by aerial bombing 1.5 tons of rodenticide on the islands.  One representative on the Biodiversity Panel identifies himself as a “conservation entrepreneur” and the founder of Island Conservation, the organization that has conducted more than 350 island eradications in 65 countries around the world and is participating in the Farallons project.  One member of the Coastal Waters Panel represents Point Blue, an organization that has participated in many deadly projects.  Point Blue actively promotes the Farallons project and has participated in its development. 

The Farallon Islands project is another example of a project that has selected an animal scapegoat for eradication without addressing the underlying cause of the perceived problem, which is a dwindling population of ashy storm petrels.  Mice are the chosen scapegoat despite the fact that they do not harm any birds or their chicks.  The mice are blamed because they are the preferred prey of a small number (8-10) of burrowing owls that prey on the petrel chicks when mice are not available.  The burrowing owls could easily be non-lethally removed from the island (Try walking up to a burrowing owl.  Chances are it won’t flinch.)  The National Park Service removed 44 Golden Eagles from the Channel Islands because they were preying on Channel Island Foxes (after NPS eradicated sheep and goats from the islands that were the Eagles’ preferred prey).  USFWS proposes to kill the mice by aerial bombing 1.5 tons of rodenticides on the Farallons and they acknowledge that hundreds (thousands?) of non-target birds are likely to be collateral damage, as they have been in hundreds of similar projects all over the world.  USFWS claims that the burrowing owls will “go away” if their preferred prey is eliminated.  It seems more likely that the burrowing owls will either be killed by the rodenticide or will eat more birds if that’s all there is to eat.  Second-generation rodenticides were recently banned in California because they are killing non-target birds and mammals.  Unfortunately an exemption for projects considered ecological “restorations” was carved out of that ban. Why the proposed Farallons project is considered a “restoration” is a mystery to me. 

We saw burrowing owls in Argentina in 2010. We walked up to them to test the claim that they are easily disturbed by people. We got even closer than this before the owl reacted.

Similar island eradications have been completed all over the world.  Rats are the usual target of those projects and unlike the mice on the Farallons, there is evidence that rats are capable of harming birds.  However, a significant portion of those projects were unsuccessful because rats are resourceful creatures capable of reproducing quickly after their population is reduced.  More importantly, those projects have killed thousands of non-target birds who ate the poison (or poisoned rats) and contaminated the water around the islands, harming fish and marine mammals that live around the islands.

Island eradications done by Island Conservation

As I told California Natural Resources Agency in my written public comments, Point Blue and Island Conservation should not be represented on 30X30 panels because they are likely applicants for projects that will be funded by the state.  This is a serious conflict of interest.  Point Blue is involved in hundreds of destructive projects all over California, including surveying barred owls in preparation for shooting them. Island Conservation has published a study that identified other islands off the coast of California for potential island eradications.  If these organizations are in a position to influence the types of projects that are funded by the 30X30 initiative, they will be in a position to profit from creating projects they can perform. 

Several of the public commenters at the Coastal Waters workshop on August 17th mentioned that there is no representation on the Coastal Waters Panel of recreational and commercial fishermen.  Other panels include representation of recreational interests because increasing recreational opportunities is one of the primary goals of the 30X30 initiative.  Point Blue should be replaced on the Coastal Waters Panel by representation of recreational and commercial fishermen. 

Where do we go from here?

You can view the 30X30 workshops on CNRA’s You Tube Channel. You can read the recommendations of the 30X30 panels on CNRA’s website.  And you can respond to CNRA’s invitation to send them pictures of successful restoration projects:

“If you or your organization has images of before and after climate smart land management projects, successful nature-based solutions; or iconic California landscapes we would love to feature them!…If your organization is interested in sharing pictures, please email them to Heather Williams at the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) by September 17. Please include a description/caption of the image, the organization’s name, and the image date(s). Send only high-resolution images (1200×800 or larger). By emailing these pictures, you give CNRA the right to use these images in our nature-based solutions and climate-smart land efforts.”

Organizations that will compete for $11 billion of grant funds will undoubtedly provide many beautiful pictures of their projects.  If you have pictures of projects that were not successful, you may send them as well. 

There will be another round of workshops to review draft plans in Fall 2021.  You can ask to be notified of those workshops and register to attend them by sending an email to californianature@ca.gov.  Plans will be finalized for implementation in January 2022. 

The 30X30 initiative has the potential to be constructive by addressing important issues with viable projects.  It also has the potential to be destructive by destroying harmless plants and animals, poisoning our land, and installing replacement landscapes that are not adapted to current and anticipated environmental conditions.  Our participation in the development of the plans is our only means of influencing the outcome.  California taxpayers will pay for these projects, whether we like them or not.  It is in our hands.

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