Are wildlife subdivisions designed for conservation helping? 

Large projects built by weathy developers have the best ecosystem impact track records

click to enlarge PHOTO BY SANTA LUCIA PRESERVE -  precious preservation A homesite at Santa Lucia Preserve in California, where 7,300 hectares are permantently preserved.
  • Photo BY Santa Lucia Preserve
  • precious preservation A homesite at Santa Lucia Preserve in California, where 7,300 hectares are permantently preserved.

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Carbonell tends to blame the way such developments are originally planned. "It's important (for planners and developers) to start interacting before a design gets finalized. In the absence of understanding how watersheds work, or how an ecosystem works, you can get development patterns that are not terribly functional."

Not surprisingly, the projects that have done well on an ecosystem scale are enormous, built by developers with deep pockets and a grand vision. Santa Lucia Preserve, Calif., is 8,000 hectares, with 7,300 hactares permanently conserved. Galisteo Basin Preserve outside of Santa Fe, N.M., is 5,472 hectares, with more than 12,800 acres of open space. Highlands Ranch, Colo., is 8,903 hectares with 5,261 hectares preserved, including a "backcountry wilderness" of 3,318 hectares that supports an elk herd.

These three developments preserve meaningful chunks of open land and connect with other natural reserves — conservation easements, state parks, national forest. They also take habitat stewardship seriously. The Santa Lucia Preserve established an endowment to fund the Santa Lucia Conservancy, a nonprofit group with an independent board, to manage its preserve land and set long-term ecological goals. The Galisteo Basin Preserve coordinates with two nonprofit organizations, a corps of graduate students, and local volunteers to perform monitoring and restoration work. Highlands Ranch employs three full-time natural area managers and seasonal rangers, plus resident volunteers.

However, it is possible to achieve landscape-level results through interaction and flexibility. Just west of Salt Lake City, Utah's Tooele County specifically requires that at least 75 per cent of a development's open space lots "shall be in a contiguous tract" and "adjoin any neighboring areas of open space." Douglas County, Colo., is currently amending its regulations to mandate formal community meetings before a project is finalized. Then the development can better meet the conservation goals articulated in the community's master plan: Wildlife corridors and open-space parcels can be planned so that they align, watersheds can be protected along their length, and development can be steered so that it clusters along major roadways and population centres.

"Watersheds, ecosystems, migration patterns can be functional in close proximity to people and cities," says Carbonell. Conservation development is just another element in the planning process. Reed recommends that the open-space parcels be big enough (she is currently seeking funding to determine the best size), and that they minimize edges and be properly monitored and maintained. The entire project should be surveyed at the start to identify critical habitat, and the development should be planned around it. Finally, the open-space parcels should communicate with other natural areas outside of the development.

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