Plants, Life, Riverside is an ongoing interpretive project about plants in an urban setting. How are natural areas managed around the 12th largest city in California? Let’s find out.
The City of Riverside is home to more than 311,000 residents and is divided into twenty-six distinct neighborhoods covering 81 square miles (Riverside Office of Economic Development, 2014). There is a lot of concrete, asphalt and stucco out here and commutes during rush hour can be absolutely horrible.
Riverside is located on the western edge of Riverside County, a county covering over 7,200 square miles of southern California (County of Riverside, 2014). While heavily populated, it does have natural areas where plants and animals are protected. These areas, and other open space areas in western Riverside county, are protected by the Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan.
The Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP) was created to establish a balance between land development, the protection of plants and animals, and the establishment of a sustainable economy while complying with state and federal Endangered Species Acts. Implemented in 2003, the MSHCP is a component of a larger project called the Riverside County Integrated Project (RCIP).
The MSHCP addresses many issues. To learn more about the Plan, I contacted Patricia Lock-Dawson, former grant writer for the County who was involved with the creation of the MSHCP. She is also one of the authors of the MSHCP Implementation Guidance Manual used to train city planners working in the fourteen cities covered by the Plan.
According to the MSHCP, the population of Riverside county will increase 400% by the year 2040 to 4.5 million people, with most of this growth occurring in the Inland Empire (MSHCP, Section 1.2.1). To prevent fragmenting open space and creating small islands of habitat unable to sustain local species, the Plan establishes a protocol guiding land use decisions. The Plan covers 1.26 million acres and 146 listed and unlisted species (MSHCP, ES.6 Goals of the MSHCP).
The Habitat Conservation Plan took about 8 years to complete. The specific function of the Plan, according to Lock-Dawson, is to streamline the economic development of the region by offering a “one-stop shop” where developers can satisfy permitting requirements with the County, the state and the federal government without running around pulling permits from every agency. The Plan enables developers to satisfy permit requirements by working with one entity — the County’s Habitat Conservation Authority.
A search of published newspaper articles revealed that the Plan has both supporters and opponents. The Plan has always had its ups and downs when it comes to public perception and Lock-Dawson says the biggest challenge the Plan faced was getting cities and developers to sign-on. Everyone was suspicious of the Plan. Cities and developers thought the Habitat Conservation Plan would interfere with development and natural resource agencies were concerned the County would not be a good steward of local natural resources and let development go wild. The County had to work diligently to earn the confidence of all parties.
The MSHCP is a document with good intentions and is designed to benefit both people and nature. However I think it’s safe to say that only a small number of people have browsed through it. This is unfortunate because this document is not only for county officials, biologists and land owners. Anyone can read the Plan. Residents of western Riverside county can even see how the MSHCP applies to their area by entering their Assessors Parcel Number into the Conservation Summary Report Generator.
In addition to being a comprehensive and thorough conservation plan, the MSHCP is a great interdisciplinary educational tool. I asked Lock-Dawson how she would explain the MSHCP to kids to teach them about local natural resources. She said she would begin by not using the acronym and would refer to it as something other than a “conservation plan” because the concept might be too much for young children to comprehend. She says she would present it first as a big map and say, “Here’s where plants and animals live” and then show how habitat has changed over time. She would then explain to kids that many people worked together to make sure the natural areas in our region would be preserved for them and for their children.
I asked Lock-Dawson what she would like people to know about this often misunderstood document. She said she would like them to understand that these types of efforts keep Riverside from becoming a place where no one wants to live. She adds, “It is what keeps our world beautiful. Natural resources need to be managed and controlled. We are not the only ones here. We have a responsibility towards the future.”
The MSHCP in the Classroom
The Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan is much more than a heavy government document. It is a treasure chest of ideas for the classroom. I quickly made note of some topics in the MSHCP and then spent time on the website of the Next Generation Science Standards browsing topics and core ideas. What a way to make a school-home-nature connection!
City of Riverside, Office of Economic Development. Retrieved March 24, 2014 from http://www.riversideca.gov/econdev/data-and-demographics.
County of Riverside, California. Riverside County History. Retrieved, March 24, 2014, from http://www.countyofriverside.us/Visitors/CountyofRiversideInformation/RiversideCountyHistory.aspx.