In December 1995, Orange County issued for public review the second of 11 NCCP habitat plans under design in the region. The pioneering plan designates a permanent reserve of nearly 39,000 acres in the central and coastal region that contains 42 rare plants and wildlife, and provides for compatible development on other land in the planning area.
Further south, the largest NCCP -- Multiple Species Conservation Program (MSCP) -- encompasses more than 581,000 acres and 11 cities and unincorporated areas in southwestern San Diego County. The plan envisions preserving 164,000 acres, including portions of the city of San Diego, as reserves for nearly 90 species, 50 of which are proposed for listing under state and federal endangered species acts.
"Integrated habitat conservation of this magnitude and degree has occurred nowhere else in the United States and is completely unique," Secretary for Resources Douglas P. Wheeler said. "NCCP is truly a win-win situation for long-term well-being of an entire habitat and the region's economic future."
After the public in Orange County weighs in, the NCCP plan must pass muster with the state Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and county supervisors. If approved, it will permanently guide land conservation in the region.
"We believe this plan will conserve natural communities of rare plants and animals before they decline further, and help protect all the other species that live in this habitat," said Tim Neely, planning and zoning administrator for the Orange County Environmental Management Agency.
In San Diego, Mayor Susan Golding spoke of the MSCP in her fourth State of the City address Jan. 10 as a way to balance economic and environmental interests.
"Individual property rights are very important to Americans. So is our natural environment," Golding said. "We are the stewards of San Diego's natural resources. As the population grows, each generation must leave this precious inheritance in better shape than they found it."
NCCP, proposed by Gov. Pete Wilson on Earth Day 1991 and established in state law, is a voluntary process under which certain areas of land are preserved as plant and animal habitat and other areas are freed for development.
In the five-county birthplace of NCCP between Los Angeles and the Mexican Border, heavy growth has imperiled the survival of a number of species that live in coastal sage scrub habitat, including the California gnatcatcher, a small songbird listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
A special rule for the gnatcatcher provided in section 4 (d) of the Endangered Species Act permits incidental "take" or alteration of coastal sage scrub habitat consistent with the state program.
Rather than waiting until species are teetering one by one on the brink of extinction, NCCP encourages an ecosystem view. It offers multi-species protection that keeps natural populations viable, and assures landowners that development projects provided for under the program won't be halted by the sudden discovery or designation of an endangered species.
NCCP is being implemented on some of the nation's most desirable and expensive real estate across a 6,000 square-mile region in portions of San Diego, Riverside, Orange, Los Angeles, and San Bernardino counties.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt declared NCCP the country's most advanced ecosystem planning effort. The Nature Conservancy considers NCCP its No. 1 national priority.
"The long-term success of conservation programs depends on their compatibility with local economies, and that's why NCCP is such a great opportunity for communities and landowners," said Jim Sulentich, NCCP field representative for The Nature Conservancy in San Diego. "We want the economy to be bolstered by regional habitat conservation planning."