Like any visionary railroad baron, Leland Stanford hung on to some of the land at the end of the line -- in his case, the original Transcontinental Railroad. Stanford might not have imagined, however, that the ultimate fate of much of his land would depend not on the iron horse but instead on frogs, salamanders, and trout.  

In the century since the Governor Stanford first deeded land to the university that bears his name, several of its native species have qualified for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, thus restricting Stanford University's ability to develop or otherwise use the land to fulfill its academic mission. The Stanford Habitat Conservation Plan is intended to ensure the land's long-term protection even as the university grows. 

Developed in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the HCP would preserve, via conservation easement, key components of roughly 5,000 acres of open space in the foothills above Palo Alto while permitting potential development or other disruptive uses on up to 180 acres. 

"Targeting the high-quality areas for the five covered species that we have in the plan…puts a comprehensive structure to it and expands the conservation work we've done," said Catherine Palter, Stanford's associate director of Land Use and Environmental Planning. Those species include the red-legged frog, tiger salamander, steelhead trout, western pond turtle, and San Francisco garter snake. 

For opponents, though, 180 acres of developable acres is too many, even on a campus as large as Stanford's. 

Critics of the plan are particularly concerned about its vague description of where development might take place. The permanently protected acres include riparian corridors and oak-studded hillsides within roughly 300 feet of San Francisquito Creek and tributary streams, which provide key habitat for the endangered species; the plan also includes a tiger salamander preserve that is off-limits to all development. 

The plan is intended to preserve and enhance habitat for endangered species and provide an "umbrella of protection" for other species on the land. The plan outlines monitoring and restoration activities that the university will conduct and commits the university to long-term stewardship of the land. In return, the university gets federal permission to "take" -- harm, kill, or otherwise disrupt -- endangered species on up to 180 acres that could be sprinkled almost anywhere on wide swaths of land, deep into the foothills and relatively far from the main campus. 

This lack of specificity troubles Brian Schmidt, legislative advocate for the Committee for Green Foothills. 

"Nobody knows where they (the developable acres) are," said Schmidt. "They could potentially be extremely important." 

Schmidt added that the HCP provides for more developable acres than Stanford's own "Sustainable Stanford" plan calls for and therefore opens more habitat than is necessary. That plan, however, has only a 25-year time horizon, as opposed to the HCP's 50 years. 

"They seem to make a projection that they're still going to be developing between 1 and 3 acres of habitat a year," said Schmidt. "I think they're overestimating the amount of impact that they're anticipating and are trying to get permits for." Schmidt said that he would prefer to see Stanford identify a smaller and more defined area for potential habitat disruption. 

The plan's architects insist, however, that giving the university a single, blanket clearance to disrupt those 180 acres is preferable to a more haphazard alternative. 

"It puts down a comprehensive and cohesive strategy to conserve endangered species," said Sheila Larsen, senior staff biologist with the Sacramento Office of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service "Otherwise, they would be coming in on a project-by-project basis." Larsen said that without the HCP, development – or lack thereof – in the foothills would take place on a "piecemeal" basis. 

The draft HCP was completed in July 2009 and the draft Environmental Impact Statement was released in April 16, 2010. A 90-day public comment period on the EIS was to have ended July 15 but has been extended to Aug. 30.

The federal permissions to disrupt endangered species do not, however, preclude local regulations or the need for analysis mandated by the state or counties. 

"This plan does not, for instance, absolve them of their responsibilities under CEQA to do their appropriate CEQA documents the construction of any buildings," said Larsen. 

Stanford's Palter said that potential development governed by the HCP should not be confused with the university's long-term development plans for its main campus. The university intends to concentrate virtually all new development within the existing campus footprint. However, she said that the university wanted to reserve the right to disrupt habitat either for the purpose of development or even for academic projects that might be so disruptive as to require a permit. 

"On the one hand, we don't have anything planned," said Palter. "But on the other, but if something should be proposed in the future and receives its local land-use approvals we know how it would be mitigated under the HCP for Endangered Species Act compliance."

Larsen insisted that by keeping the riparian corridors off-limits, any development or academic activities would have relatively low impacts. 

"The plan provides for a certain amount of…avoidance and minimization, which includes siting most of those 180 acres outside of environmentally sensitive areas," said Larsen. 

Palter admitted that the university has no specific plans for those acres –- many of which are not contiguous with the main campus -- but noted that with a 50-year plan the university wanted to maintain a degree of flexibility. 

Regardless of whether the university will exercise its right to use those acres, the HCP calls for the university to oversee conservation efforts on the entire 5,000 acres. It mandates the establishment of a land trust but does not include specific details regarding the administration or independence of the trust. Critics of the plan contend that anything short of an independent board might enable the university to shirk its obligations to preserve the land properly. 

"There's no detail about how that land trust would be organized and how it would maintain its independence and its ability to enforce easements against Stanford, especially if Stanford is the body that's organizing it," said Schmidt.

Schmidt called on Stanford to establish an independent board and to give the trust sufficient financing for it to be able to bring lawsuits against the university if needed.  The HCP does not lay out those details, but Palter said that the HCP would require the trust to submit annual reports to Fish and Wildlife to ensure compliance. 

One of the more controversial issues that has arisen in the discussion of the HCP is actually not in the HCP itself. The environmental group Beyond Searsville Dam, headed by environmental consultant Matt Stoecker, is concerned about the fate of the obsolete Searsville Dam, a 65-foot high, 275-wide dam that dates back to 1892. Impounding the waters of San Francisquito Creek, the dam serves no useful purpose, and the lake behind it is now 90 percent sediment. 

The university has agreed to dredge the lake and to study options for fish passage so that steelhead trout can surmount the dam, but Beyond Searsville Dam has called for the university to take stronger action. Stoecker ultimately wants the university to remove the dam entirely. Stoecker said that he sees the drafting of the HCP as an opportunity to get the university to commit to its removal, especially because the HCP covers land and riparian features that are surrounding and affected by the dam.  

"What we're really asking for is a collaborative process and doing a study just to see if dam removal is feasible and how best to do it," said Stoecker. "You'd think one of the world's leading institutions would be interested in having all the data."

Stanford's Palter, however, said that dam removal is simply too complex and costly for the university to commit to anything of the sort at the present time and therefore is not included in the HCP at all. 

"It's unrelated, but we're hearing the comments because the HCP is out for public review," said Palter. "It's not in the HCP because the HCP needs to have very definite plans for what's called covered activities." 

Contacts and Resources

Stanford HCP Draft Environmental Impact Statement

Stanford HCP Official Site

Sheila Larsen, Senior Staff Biologist. Sacramento Office of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, (916) 414-6600 

Catherine Palter, Associate Director of Land Use and Environmental Planning, Stanford University, (650) 723-0199

Brian Schmidt, Legislative Advocate, Committee for Green Foothills, (650) 968-7243

Matt Stoecker, Beyond Searsville Dam, (650) 380-2965


-- Josh Stephens