Geography / Geology
School of Environmental Sciences

Regional governance and conservation planning in Southern California

For the past 15 years or so, Professor Andy Jonas in the Department of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences at the University of Hull has been collaborating with researchers based at the University of California (Los Angeles and Riverside) and practitioners involved in developing regional multiple species habit conservation plans for federally listed threatened and endangered species.

This long-term research project began in early 1994 with a successful application to the National Science Foundation for funding to look at the impact of the 1973 U.S. Endangered Species Act (and subsequent amendments) on the institutions, policies and politics of land use and conservation planning in Southern California. The project has subsequently received small grants from local and regional government and conservation agencies in the region. Members of the project team have acted as researchers, advisors and independent consultants on various aspects of the ongoing planning processes in Southern California.

Focusing on the dynamic interactions between political institutions, local ecologies, the science of conservation and the landscape, the research brings together expertise in the social and natural sciences. Andy and his colleagues have been closely involved in monitoring and evaluating the evolution of two large-scale regional habitat conservation plans, one in western Riverside County and the other in the Coachella Valley (which includes the city of Palm Springs). Their studies of western Riverside County and the Coachella Valley show a complex set of actors, operating at different landscape scales and combining to create a semi-coherent set of reserves.

However, these conservation plans have not addressed the potential impacts of climate change and anthropogenic pollution on the local landscapes. Paradoxically, they require land development on other vacant lands for funding, and rely heavily on the capacity of local political leaders working with a wide range of business, governmental and not-for-profit organisations in the region to influence and lobby federal agencies. Regional conservation planning is disconnected institutionally and politically from other regional initiatives underway across California due to its landscape- and place-specific origins (Jonas and Pincetl, 2006).

Southern California: a biodiversity and development hotspot

A global "hotspot" of both urban development and biodiversity, Southern California has seen the development of innovative approaches to conservation and land use management since the 1980s, when endangered species conflicts came to the fore (Feldman and Jonas, 2000). Many of the conflicts occurred in urbanizing areas undergoing intense development activity, which in turn resulted from increased demand for housing in county unincorporated areas at the edge of the region's major metropolitan areas (Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, and the Riverside-San Bernardino metropolitan area).

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, new regional approaches to conservation in urban and suburban areas were rolled out even as problems of resource depletion and habitat loss accelerated. Two especially innovative regional conservation plans have been developed in Riverside County. Despite a common purpose of balancing conservation and development at the wildland/urban interface, these plans differ in terms of origins, funding, aims and the ecological and human landscapes being protected.

Western Riverside County

Riverside County lies east of Los Angeles and spans across the San Jacinto range of mountains into the desert to the border with Arizona. According to various projections, the County's population is expected to increase by nearly 75% from its current population of 1.877 million, with Latinos becoming the dominant ethnic group. Arising out of failures of earlier conservation planning efforts in the County to address property rights and endangered species conflicts, the Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (WRCMSHVCP) covers 146 species, and aims to conserve 500,000 acres of open space.

County government is leading the planning effort through a joint powers authority, which links regional conservation with funding for transportation. The Plan enlists 347,000 federal and state lands to create a reserve system and aims to purchase 153,000 acres. There will be a State and Federal conservation commitment to fund the acquisition of 56,000 of those acres. The WRCMSHCP was adopted by local governments in 2003 and permitted in 2004. It affects unincorporated lands and 14 cities within 1.26 million acres, or 1,966 square miles. Participating cities are eligible for transportation dollars under an agreement with the County.

The Coachella Valley

The Coachella Valley contains about 300 square miles and is bounded on four sides by dramatic mountain ranges with elevations dipping -228 feet along the desert shores of the Salton Sea to 11,499 feet on the alpine summit of Mount San Gorgonio. With its heterogeneous landscape and position at the confluence of 4 distinct bio-geographic regions, the Valley is hotspot of biological diversity. The nation’s second habitat conservation plan was completed here in the mid 1980s, and sought protection of dune habitat for the fringe-toed lizard (Figure 1).

Figure 1, The Coachella Valley, California

Figure 1: The Coachella Valley, California. This system of dunes is set aside for the protection of the fringe-toed lizard. Professor Andy Jonas is the left of the two individuals in the photo (photo courtesy of Jim Sullivan).

The Valley's most recent regional conservation planning process was begun in the mid 1990s and led by the Coachella Valley Association of Governments, a regional joint powers authority. It has taken over a decade to approve, and despite constructive input from the local development industry, has faced opposition locally and federally.

The Valley's relative insularity, prosperity, and reservoir of lands that could be urbanized without impacting the endangered species led to a ground up process: buy-in and support of the cities, environmental non profits, industry associations, and agricultural interests. Habitat preservation could take place without significantly adversely affecting the supply of housing at any price level. But the plan relied on a safety valve for future development: agricultural lands. The southern portion of the Coachella Valley is in agriculture, and the endangered species that might have existed there have long ago been extirpated.

The research team

The project is a co-operation between social scientists, conservation biologists and planners. Other members of the research team working with Professor Andy Jonas include Dr. Stephanie Pincetl of the Institute of the Environment at UCLA and the US Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station, Dr. Tom Scott in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of California at Riverside, and Jim Sullivan of the Coachella Valley Association of Governments.

The project has provided research training for numerous undergraduate research assistants as well as several Ph.D. and MSc. students. Members of the research team were awarded an Education Project Award by the American Planning Association (Inland Empire Section) in 2001, and in 2007 Dr. Pincetl was recognised for her contribution to land use and environmental policy in California by the American Planning Association (California Chapter).


Feldman T.D. and Jonas A.E.G. 2000. Sage scrub revolution? Property rights, political fragmentation and conservation planning in southern California under the federal Endangered Species Act. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 90: 256-292.

Jonas A.E.G. and Pincetl S. 2006. Rescaling regions in the state: the New Regionalism in California. Political Geography 25: 482-505.

Andy and his colleagues have recently completed a draft of a paper comparing the experiences of the two regional conservation plans describe above. Inspection copies can be requested from Andy at

External websites

For public and scientific information about the plans described above, consult the following websites:

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