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Alison Maulhardt: The value of wildlife corridors

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: May 27, 2009 9:05 p.m.
Updated: May 28, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 
John Muir once said, "When one tugs at a single thing in nature he finds it attached to the rest of the world."

These words seem even truer today then they were when the famous naturalist who helped to save Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks first spoke them.

With a growing awareness of the effects of man's decisions on Earth it is important for the citizens of the Santa Clarita Valley to listen to his words of wisdom.

As the June 11 hearing date for Newhall Land's river permit approaches, Muir's thoughts on the connectivity of nature are foremost in my mind.

It is our responsibility to protect Southern California's last "wild river," the Santa Clara, from suffering the same fate as the L.A. or Santa Ana Rivers, which are now no more than concrete channels.

The Santa Clara River is a crucial part of a wildlife corridor that connects two habitat areas in the Angeles National Forest between the San Gabriel Mountains and the Castaic Ranges. The corridor is a unique transition zone between coastal and desert habitats.

According to Keith Hay of the Conservation Fund, "Corridors hold more promise for the conservation of the diversity of life then any other management factor except stabilization of the human population."

John Hopkins, one of the original founders and board members of the Friends of the Santa Clara River, and a well-known biologist, explains in an article titled "Protecting Biodiversity" that wildlife corridors reduce extinction by allowing animals to move between habitats.

This helps to preserve genetic diversities within a species, species diversity within an ecological community and ecological diversity with in a region - all three of which are crucial elements of conservation.

How will this new plan for the river protect the wildlife corridor?

The spreading of urbanization in Southern California, and especially in the Santa Clarita Valley, has brought many species and entire communities to the brink of extinction.

According to Hopkins, 33 percent of California's mammals, 40 percent of California's amphibians and 57 percent of California's plants are naturally rare or at risk of losing entire ecosystems and masses of species unique to their ecosystem.

Along our own river, in spite of a management plan that was supposed to save and protect them, many of our local endangered or threatened species seem to have disappeared.

Biological surveys must be conducted for Newhall's original river plan in order to show that the new proposal for the Newhall Ranch area is really workable. There is no need to guess at this question.

In addition, riparian woodlands (the scientific name for the native plants we see along the Santa Clara River) in particular have been reduced to less than 5 percent of their original extent.

That is one of the many reasons our river is so unique and special, and of such great regional importance.

The natural beauty and unique life forms of California are made vulnerable by habitat fragmentation and urban sprawl.

Maintaining the natural connectivity between them is imperative to facilitate long-term biodiversity of the region.

The riparian habitats of the Santa Clara River are particularly important in this arid climate because they serve as critical habitat to birds and mammals. Santa Clarita is the only major urban stretch of the river.

Now Newhall Land and Farming has a new plan to develop in the floodplain west of Interstate 5, only this time we can be wise to the consequences of letting such a plan go unchecked.

The practice of avoiding development within the floodplain is becoming more common throughout the country. Federal agencies are required to evaluate potential effects of development within the flood plain and consider alternatives.

More than 500 communities throughout the country have established "greenways" projects that do not develop in the floodplain at all but instead protect the natural river environment and enhance the urban experience.

The local Sierra Club group has promoted just such a plan for the Santa Clara River for many years. Greenways are also instrumental to preserving wildlife corridors.

Preserving the wildlife corridor is especially important due to the effects of global climate change.

Habitats and ecosystems may not be able to move into other locations as needed to adapt to changes in the weather if there are human barriers.

In addition, genetic variation, aided by wildlife corridors, is essential for long-term survival and adaptation to new climatic conditions. Does Newhall's new plan adequately address this?

The Santa Clara River is indispensable not just to the human species, but also to the rest of the species that call the Santa Clarita Valley ‘home.'

This is our opportunity to protect a local treasure that is rapidly becoming extinct, a natural free-flowing wild river and all its jewels of biological diversity. To do so we must ensure the preservation of the wildlife corridors.

To view the Newhall Ranch River Plan online, visit www.dfg.ca.gov/regions/5/newhall.

Alison Maulhardt is a UCLA graduate in Physical Geography/Environmental Studies and a Canyon Country resident. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Environmentally Speaking" appears Thursdays in The Signal and rotates among local environmentalists.

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