The Gnatcatcher Saves Coastal Habitat

By Barbara Dye, former Executive Director of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy

The Rancho Palos Verdes Natural Communities Conservation Plan (NCCP), which gave us the nature preserve, all started because of a small, gray bird, the coastal California gnatcatcher, that lives in a vanishing habitat called coastal sage scrub.

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In 1991 Gov. Pete Wilson signed AB2172, establishing an innovative program to encourage federal, state, and local partnerships to protect plant and wildlife populations. The idea was to do regional planning, so that significant parcels and connections between them could be preserved.

About that time, a scientist named Jonathan Atwood published a major study on gnatcatcher populations which estimated that there were no more than 1000-1500 pairs left in Southern California, and that continued habitat loss could result in their extinction. Based on this and other studies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the bird as federally threatened in 1993.

Developers in Southern California were increasingly interested in building on coastal properties, and several government agencies saw the NCCP as a way to manage that development, and to obtain permits for their own projects. The developers saw the proposal as a way around the Endangered Species Act. Several NCCPs were approved in the mid 90’s in San Diego and Orange Counties.

In 1988, residents of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, led by aerospace engineer Dr. Bill Ailor, founded the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy with the goal of preserving the remaining open space on the peninsula. They were successful at building community awareness of the need for preservation, and were able to hire staff, start education programs, and preserve several properties. They began to work with the city of Rancho Palos Verdes on a local NCCP in the late 1990s.

Biological surveys began for the NCCP, identifying not only the gnatcatcher, but another bird, the cactus wren, and several plant species as worthy of preservation, and designating key habitat areas as important for their preservation. The city joined with the conservancy to draft a plan that would give the conservancy the responsibility for managing the preserve, something the agencies felt was essential. Conservancy and city staff went to Washington DC in 2002 to lobby successfully for federal funding for NCCPs.

In 2004, during my term as executive director of the conservancy, when the possibility of purchasing the open space in Portuguese Bend became a reality, everyone made a real push to complete the NCCP so that funding for the acquisition could be authorized and we worked really hard to finalize the document. I remember getting up at 5 a.m. to drive down to Fish and Game headquarters near San Diego to work all day on the draft!

That year the conservancy and city approved an NCCP plan and an EIR, but the agencies were not able to move as quickly. In 2005 a purchase agreement for $17 million was signed for Portuguese Bend, and the government agencies contributed $12 million even though the NCCP hadn’t been finalized. The community came together to contribute to the effort; the conservancy raised the balance of the funds, and the land was acquired.

For the next 14 years conservancy executive director Andrea Vona worked with the various agencies to finalize the document, and finally in 2019, it was approved by all the agencies, creating the Palos Verdes Nature Preserve. In 2019, 46 California gnatcatchers were recorded on eBird in the Rancho Palos Verdes preserves. That small gray bird is now flourishing, thanks to the NCCP.

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