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Wildlife protection behind decisions on open spaces

Deputy director of San Diego’s Department of Park & Rec’s Open Space Division, Chris Zirkle, provided La Jolla Parks & Beaches (LJPB) advisory group with a presentation about open spaces in The Jewel, during its Feb. 23 meeting.

“It is not often that we get someone from Park & Rec at the level of deputy director to attend (our meetings),” LJPB chair Dan Allen told La Jolla Light. “My purpose in inviting him was to raise members’ awareness of the public and private open spaces, and the natural parks in and adjacent to La Jolla. These need management just as our shoreline parks do, although obviously with lesser intensity. Parks & Beaches should address issues in all categories of parks, including the open space parks, now and then.”

San Diego has three categories of parks: population-based parks, often near residential areas or schools; resource-based parks, near beaches, canyons, lakes or cultural facilities; and open spaces, which are city-owned lands consisting of canyons or mesas, intended to protect wildlife while providing recreational opportunities. Zirkle’s division manages the latter.

When it comes to how the city makes decisions regarding its open spaces — including how to manage them — protection of wildlife is often at the core.

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In the early 1990s, Zirkle explained, in an effort to balance wildlife protection and infrastructure expansion, wildlife agencies, property owners, developers and environmental groups partnered to form the Multiple Species Conservation Program.

According to an informational page about the program found on the city’s website: “The Multiple Species Conservation Program is designed to preserve native habitat for multiple species rather than focusing efforts on one species at a time. This is accomplished by identifying areas for directed development and areas to be conserved in perpetuity – known as the Multi Habitat Planning Area (MHPA).”

MHPA land, under the category of open space, helps meet the requirement of protecting wildlife.

Chris Zirkle, deputy director of the city Department of Park & Rec Open Space division
Chris Zirkle, deputy director of the city Department of Park & Rec Open Space division

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The Open Space Division of Park & Rec manages a significant portion of the MHPA, Zirkle said, giving it specific care. “We manage 23,000 acres of MHPA land and another 3,000 acres of open space that we try to preserve in a natural state, even though it’s not in the MHPA.”

The city’s MHPA is 56,831 acres and includes 47,910 acres within city jurisdiction, and 8,921 acres of additional city-owned lands in the unincorporated areas around San Vicente Reservoir, Otay Lakes and Marron Valley.

Management of MHPA land includes litter removal, trail maintenance, homeless encampment issues and more.

MHPA land can be privately owned, as is the case for much of the acreage in La Jolla, where there are just over 542 acres of MHPA land, 287 acres of open space and just over 69 acres of community, neighborhood and parks. Some of the acreage overlaps, as MHPA land can be also be open space or parks.

Dedicating open space

Open spaces within and outside MHPA can become dedicated parkland, Zirkle explained, at which point the land can only be used for park activities and not sold or converted for another use without a 50-percent approval vote of the city council.

Non-dedicated parkland can be sold or converted by a city council majority vote. Open space land is valued at $35,000 an acre.

Most recently, in 2012, 6,000 acres citywide became dedicated parkland. The city council has since expressed interest in dedicating other parcels. However, Zirkle said the land the Open Space Division was comfortable designating was recommended in the 2012 cycle. His concern, he said, regards areas purchased for specific uses, such as flood control, that they are hesitant to dedicate as parkland.

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For those who want to help maintain certain parks, specifically canyons, Zirkle recommends the organization San Diego Canyonlands, which supports “friends” groups (i.e. Friends of Kate Sessions Canyon) by helping to plan cleanup and restoration events, working with local park rangers. sdcanyonlands.org

Trail maintenance

In La Jolla’s open spaces, the issue of intended and user-made trails is also a concern. Allen noted, “As I’ve been around La Jolla and seen the open space parks ... one of the things I’ve noticed when it comes to population growth is there are more trails in the open space parks. These are natural parks that were set aside and are monitored for protection of wildlife.” He asked whether there are efforts in place to maintain intended trails without measures like fencing. Zirkle answered yes, noting “We have that

problem all over town, not just in La Jolla. In a lot of cases, it’s due to path-planning efforts that underestimate the recreational needs of the community. Trails and recreation, certainly more so in the MHPA, need to be balanced with habitat preservation.”

Zirkle said he and his team are working on implementing a Natural Resources Management Plan in Mission Trails and Crest Canyon, through which “we put out a revised plan that inevitably deletes some user-created trails and adds new trails that we believe are sustainable and provide enough recreation activity and discourage illegal trails (and the subsequent) destruction of trees.”

Zirkle said it’s mandatory for all MHPAs to have a Natural Resources Management Plan, but establishing such for the various areas is prioritized based on the threats to native species and the sensitivity of the species being threatened.

La Jolla’s MHPA will have a plan developed, but Zirkle said, “There are larger areas we are moving forward on first.”

Meanwhile, one strategy is to use large amounts of brush to delineate trails, with enough heft to deter hikers from removing the brush to veer off the planned trail.

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“From a regulatory perspective, it’s been illegal for years to remove plants from parks,” he said. “But after hundreds and thousands of people walk on these user- made trails — each taking a little bit with them — plants get removed from the park. We are constantly fighting that battle.”


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