By Tommy Hough
Good morning. My name is Tommy Hough, I'm a San Diego resident, and I represent 430 environmentally-minded conservation voters in our region who are members of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. I'm the organization's co-founder, I served as its original president, and I currently serve as the organization's vice president for policy.
The greenwashing being promoted today by proponents of this land swap is really quite shocking, and it shouldn't take much for you to see through it. Proponents of this plan claim to favor some kind of mythical "balance" between commercial interests and environmental concerns, but when goalposts are moved, when straw man arguments are offered about protecting land that's already been protected, and when agencies stenographically allow plan proponents to claim something will aid the environment when it does the exact opposite, that's a clear indication there is a complete lack of balance. Claiming there is one to find common ground at, under these circumstances, is fiction.
As I'll say several times over the course of my remarks, Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve was identified and set aside for conservation for a reason – it didn't just fall out of the clear blue sky. Environmental laws that protect habitat and species enabled, in part, the reserve's founding. Why are we even talking about wildfire concerns at this site when we shouldn't be building in the reserve to begin with?
I'm amazed this board would even entertain the notion that vital, critical habitat for the endangered Quino Checkerspot Butterfly, along with specific habitat for so many of our incredibly diverse roster of species in San Diego County, is somehow so disposable that the reserve's status is really only a placeholder until something more lucrative comes along that someone can make a buck on. If so, it would then be abundantly clear our conservation enforcement processes have become irreparably corrupted.
The suggestion of "exchanging" critical habitat protected as part of the reserve in order to build, in its place, another sprawl housing project with more housing that no one who actually works for a living in our region can afford, is so wretchedly out of step with California's once-sterling reputation as an environmentally-minded state that it's as unprecedented as the Trump administration's undoing of the boundaries of National Monuments. That's how bad this proposal is. And that is not what we Californians expect from our state agencies.
This isn't just open space. Swapping out parcels of Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve for other acres of lesser biological value, as though all open space and acreage is equal, is not what was intended for these lands receiving the ecological reserve designation in the first place. That is not the mindset, nor the spirit, by which wildlife resources are to be managed.
You've heard from organizations in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, the Central Coast, the North Coast, the Central Valley, Gold Country, the High Desert, and other corners of our state that are opposed to this scheme. If such a land swap was proposed, say, for one of our state parks, a similar outcry would also be heard throughout the state.
In San Diego in the recent past we reacted swiftly and in massive numbers when a needless freeway, whose only purpose was to enable more environmentally-destructive sprawl development in our fire-prone, wild backcountry, was proposed along the length of the last steelhead-producing watershed south of Los Angeles, and was similarly managed in a state of preservation as part of a California State Park. We reacted similarly when the city of San Diego willingly changed local zoning to enable the construction of a Climate Action Plan-defying office park – as pointless an edifice as any in the pandemic era – right next to one of our city's great natural preserves without a hint of self-consciousness.
Nothing outweighs the value of Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve and its original intention of preserving its specific lands and habitat. The location isn't arbitrary. The soil and vegetation at Rancho Jamul are highly specific to the survival of the Quino Checkerspot. That's why it was designated as such in the first place.
Please do not look at the choice before you today as a narrow legal decision – but do consider the broad implications and precedent this proposal will set to enable other projects designed to subvert the very modest conservation protections we have in our region.
Please do NOT approve this land swap. As Dan Silver of the Endangered Habitats League testified earlier, consider the "toxic optics" of this deal, and understand how they will reflect on you and this board. Protect the integrity of our preserved lands. Please vote to break the cycle of taking bulldozers to vital, already-protected habitat that was enabled and set aside by your predecessors, our state, and by years of work by dedicated, local advocates and citizens. Thank you.
Photo courtesy of the San Diego Natural History Museum.
A former San Diego broadcaster and media personality, Tommy Hough is a wilderness and conservation advocate, communications professional, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He ran as the endorsed Democratic candidate for San Diego City Council in District 6 in 2018.