Category Archives: Flora and Fauna

Big Oil, Small Bird, and a Pipe Dream

Helen Higgins leads a group of protesters (file photo fom Feb. 2010 by Cindy Cotter)

Back to basics

The wrangling over Chevron’s proposed development of West Coyote Hills has become a morass of plans, objections, revisions, studies, claims, counterclaims, group allegiances and legal entanglement. It’s easy to lose sight of the core issue. Let’s get back to basics.

The land belongs to Chevron and is zoned for oil and gas. They’re asking the city of Fullerton to rezone so they can build. Opponents of development would prefer to restore and preserve the remaining oil property — coastal sage scrub, a diminishing habitat unique to southern California.

Community activists have challenged every chink in Chevron’s plans, leading to studies, reports, and expert testimony on earthquake hazards, noxious gases, water supply, traffic, air pollution, overcrowded schools, and endangered species. This approach has stymied Chevron’s efforts so far, but there’s a flaw.

You can win the battle and lose the war

Chevron has methodically responded to every challenge. Most recently they have brokered a deal to supply Fullerton with additional water at no price increase if needed. The water deal is merely the latest in a list of compromises, amendments and adaptations with which Chevron has countered anti-development arguments.

But a kinder, gentler development isn’t what most activists are after. Underneath their barrage of objections lies one obdurate goal that is not being met: A significant number of passionate people want to preserve the land wild and natural. It isn’t about minimizing the impact of development, it’s about stopping it cold. It’s about restoring and preserving a fragile habitat.

Who cares about gnatcatchers?

Take the controversy over a small bird, the California gnatcatcher. It’s a threatened species known to live in the hills. Opponents of development have used the gnatcatcher as a reason to oppose development. Chevron says they will leave enough open space to accommodate the birds. A biologist testifying for Chevron even said that the number of gnatcatchers rose after development in the adjacent property of Hawks Point.

An increase in the number of threatened birds would be good news if the point of protecting gnatcatchers were merely to protect the bird, but that’s not it. If you’ve ever wondered why anyone cares so much about a tiny bird most of us wouldn’t recognize, here’s why: The gnatcatcher is being used as an umbrella species — an indicator of the health of a habitat that you wish to protect.

Here’s the reasoning: To survive in the wild, plants and animals must have enough space to support a whole ecology. A hawk needs prey. A rabbit needs room to forage. A toad needs at least a temporary body of water. Insects feed on certain kinds of plants. And a species needs a large enough population to prevent inbreeding. But how much space is needed? How do you decide when you’ve got enough land for a healthy habitat? And how do you make that kind of decision in a fair and objective way when a developer is facing off against an environmental group?

That’s where the umbrella species comes in. An environmental group will pick a charismatic and threatened plant or animal that depends on a certain habitat for its existence, then launch a campaign to save that species by saving a large enough chunk of the land on which it depends to keep the habitat functioning as a self-sustaining ecological system.

Saving the gnatcatcher was never the real issue, and ensuring that development leaves room for the birds to survive even though their original habitat is gone doesn’t solve the problem. None of Chevron’s many concessions and compromises will satisfy those who want all the land intact as scrub.

Confronting the real issue head-on

Chevron has argued in a suit against Fullerton that the city has not negotiated in good faith. The landowner has done its level best to meet every objection and yet the city voted against their plan. I see Chevron’s point.

Here’s the crux. Anyone wishing to preserve the hills as open space must be able to deal with that issue, preservation. Instead the question is always framed in such a way that the only way to stop development is to poke holes in Chevron’s plan. Opponents of development talk about keeping water prices down or mitgating traffic, but those are distractions from the real issue.  The City of Fullerton determined in 1977, when the question first arose, that they couldn’t afford to buy the land, but has there been no serious consideration of that possibility since then.

I hear frequently from one side that there is money available from more than one source to buy and preserve all the land, but Chevron won’t sell. I hear from the other side that there isn’t enough money available, it’s just wishful thinking. That’s an important question. It should be confronted head on.

I suppose it’s just a pipe dream, but…

What would happen if the city council made any zoning change contingent upon Chevron first agreeing to let an objective third party name a reasonable price for the land? The city or any other party wishing to preserve the land would be given time to raise that money and present an alternate proposal. Then the city council would choose between the two (or more) plans, with Chevron agreeing to sell should their plan lose. That would finally put the real choices, development vs. preservation, in direct competition. I wonder.

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Here’s an interesting article from the Spring 2001 issue of Conservation Magazine on the concept of umbrella species. The authors explain what an umbrella species is, why they’re used, and why they’re not always a great way to protect a habitat. They mention the gnatcatcher in particular.

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Coyote Melon

Coyote Melon near entrance to Robert E. Ward Nature Preserve on Euclid Ave. in Fullerton on June 12, 2010 (Photo credit: Cindy Cotter)

An odd California native grows just inside the Euclid entrance to the Robert E. Ward Nature Preserve in Fullerton.  Right now, in June, it’s a large, sprawling vine with big yellow blossoms and small round melons that you might expect to find in a vegetable garden. Cucurbita foetidissima (coyote melon, coyote ear, buffalo gourd, stinking melon, calabazilla, or chilicote) looks like a melon plant, but it grows wild in dry land that would wither its cultivated relatives.

Cucurbita foetidissima is sometimes called "coyote ear" because of the shape of the leaves. (Photo credit: Cindy Cotter)

According to James Cunkle of the White Mountain Archeological Center, It was cultivated thousands of years ago. The seeds are nutritious, but Cunkle lists several other possible uses for the fruit: The flesh makes a laundry whitener, the juice was used to wean babies (Cunkle says, “This stuff could discourage anyone from anything”), and the dried gourds can be used as containers and rattles. The flesh also has medicinal uses.

In June the plant is still in flower, with fruits just beginning to form. (Photo credit: Cindy Cotter)

There are several references in scholarly journals from the seventies and eighties to research on new uses for the plant as a feed crop for animals or as a source of oil that could be used as fuel, the primary advantage of the plant being its suitability in dry climates.

Today the gourds are used as a medium for decoration. They can be displayed as-is or painted, carved or etched. One town in Arizona holds a coyote melon festival every fall, and the plant has inspired at least one song.

They’re for sale online at the Las Pilitas Nursery, but beware! They’re called “foetidissima” for a reason — they smell like sweaty armpits!

If you prefer, you can just visit the plant here:

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Here’s what the entrance to the preserve looks like:

This is the entrance to the Robert E. Ward Nature Preserve from Euclid in Fullerton. The coyote melon is straight ahead, to the right of the pile of dirt, in front of the small elderberry tree. (Photo taken July 4, 2009, by Cindy Cotter)

Coyote melon links:

The Ancient Gift of Gourds, an excellent article by writer Jan Cleere

Nature writer Chris Clark gives a hypothesized history of the evolution of squashes in America from natives like the Cucurbita foetidissima:
What’s Owed to Those Who Have Gone Before.

Scholarly suggestions for possible uses:
Potential commercial source of oil
Diesel fuel and feedstock
Cow-feed and oil source

Click the photo to see more decorated coyote gourds:

Painted coyote gourd by Luna Rivera (click photo to see more of her work)

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Fallen Tree

On Monday Officer Montanez, from the Santa Fe Springs office of the California Highway Patrol, discovered a fallen tree in at the corner of Larrylyn Drive and Woodbriar Drive by Rancho Starbuck Intermediate School in unincorporated Whittier.

He called Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, then sat in his patrol car, lights flashing, and waited.

He was there when my daughter and I drove past on our way to see The Lovely Bones and was still there when we came home. During that time he kept a watchful eye to be sure the obstruction caused no further harm, leaving only once to back up another officer.

Eventually he was relieved by Officer Aravejo who taped off the tree.

Later in the afternoon a crew from the Department of Public Works arrived in flourescent yellow gear and removed the tree. They were still working after sunset, but by early evening the road was clear and the hazard was gone.

–Cindy Cotter

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