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County's Top Environmentalist Says He's No Sellout, Just a Pragmatist

Michael Beck is one of the county’s leading environmentalists. He’s frequently negotiating with politicians and developers and leads a nonprofit that owns and manages nature preserves.

Beck has come into the crosshairs of developers, of course, but also other environmentalists who say some of his positions don't do enough to protect nature.

Beck says he’s not bothered by the criticism, which he says comes from people who aren't grappling with political realities.

In its battle to muscle through the massive Lilac Hills development in rural Valley Center, developer Accretive Investments put an environmentalist named Michael Beck in its crosshairs.

Beck, a member of the county Planning Commission, is also San Diego director of the Endangered Habitats League, an environmental group that opposes the project. Accretive insisted Beck’s role at EHL meant he was conflicted and should remove himself from the vote.

Beck, the county counsel’s office and the state Fair Political Practices Commission, disagreed.

That Accretive, and other developers over the years, have picked fights with Beck is to be expected.

But far less publicized was another move the EHL made related to projects like Lilac Hills that perfectly illustrates many of the more surprising complaints Beck has amassed over the years – that he’s been too willing to compromise with developers or politicians who want to build on land not save it.

The EHL has vigorously opposed Lilac Hills, which would add 1,700 homes on 600 acres of mostly agricultural land. The EHL argued that county rules prohibits sprawl like Lilac Hills. The county’s general plan outlaws so-called “leapfrog development,” or building new developments that are out in the countryside and far from other development. The goal is to steer growth toward already developed areas in order to preserve the undeveloped ones.

But, this spring, right in the middle of the fight over Lilac Hills and sprawl, EHL Executive Director Dan Silver sent an email to county officials. Silver, Beck’s long-time partner at the EHL, said the group supported efforts to revise those leapfrog rules, which might then allow more sprawl.

Silver’s letter seemed an awful lot like a concession by the EHL, one that would lead to a slippery slope that would erode anti-sprawl measures. On the one hand, the group was opposing Lilac Hills because it was a leapfrog development. On the other hand, the group more quietly backed changes that could make it easier for projects like Lilac Hills to be approved.

Beck said the Board of Supervisors is going to change the standards one way or the other and the EHL wants to be at the table so the decision isn’t made solely by developers.

“You know, it’s always the case, ‘Oh, look at it, EHL is already giving away the farm.’ No, we’re not giving away the farm, you idiot. The barn door is open and we’re losing it right now as we sit here if we don’t do something about it,” Beck said.

Another recent manifestation of that tension is a controversial sand mining project in East County. Beck supports the mine project because he’s been assured that the mining company will only operate for 15 years, then the land can be restored to its natural habitat. That’s caused some former allies in the area to turn on him.

Some environmentalists call Beck, 65, a fraud. He says he’s simply pragmatic.

Beck doesn’t mind if his work ends up narrowing his social circle.

“My bottom line is, what would the gnatcatcher want me to do?” he said.

The Big Conservation Plan

The gnatcatcher is an endangered bird. A rush to save it helped spawn the last quarter-century of land-use planning in San Diego County.

Some of the antipathy toward Beck goes back to his role in the complicated Multi-Species Conservation Plan, the landmark agreement that is supposed to be saving nature – including the gnatcatcher – while also allowing for development.

All told, it’s supposed to set aside 172,000 acres of land for protection.

Basically instead of shutting down development to save a few rare species that might be protected by the Endangered Species Act, the plan allows development in some areas but not in others. It also allows local governments – rather than the federal government – to call many of the shots.

The plan divided environmentalists at the time and still does today.

Duncan McFetridge, an environmentalist who has sparred with Beck, calls the premise of Beck’s work a fraud.

“They needed environmental cover and that’s what EHL represents: cover for sprawl developers,” McFetridge said.

Shortly after the Multi-Species Conservation Plan was approved, EHL’s critics had something they could point to: a development in Mira Mesa destroyed 65 of 66 vernal pools on the site. A vernal pool is a shallow, seasonal wetland that often shelters rare plants and animals, and they’re just the sort of rare habitat the Multi-Species Conservation Plan seemed like it should protect.

Some environmentalists sued over the vernal pools. EHL did not. The group argued that the problem wasn’t the plan itself but how it was being implemented.

There are several “What ifs” still floating around about the Multi-Species Conservation Plan. One is simply that environmentalists, including the EHL, could have stuck together better and not compromised as much as they did. That might have saved more of nature.

Another “what if” is more complicated, but also possible: A total win by environmentalists could have led to a total defeat. If they had gotten an inflexible environmental policy in place that shut down new development, a national outrage could have prompted the Republican Congress at the time to overhaul and weaken the Endangered Species Act, leaving the environment far worse off.

More important to Beck than trying to win these fights is to avoid them, and get more environmentalists into office.

Beck said he and Silver walked precincts last year trying to drum up support for Oceanside Mayor Jim Wood in his race against County Supervisor Bill Horn. Without three environment-friendly supervisors on the five-member board, Beck said, there will never be support for a green agenda. The same is true with most city councils in the county.

“They’re not going to, like, adopt a conservation plan because they’re green, that’s just not going to happen,” he said. “We’re pragmatic, we realize that – that just means you accept reality.”

A Small Group Trying to Grab Land for Nature

EHL was formed in a barn at the Starr Ranch Sanctuary in Orange County in 1991, right as the fight over the Multi-Species Conservation Plan was heating up.

After that plan was finally adopted in the late-1990s, EHL decided no one was doing enough to conserve land, so it created the Endangered Habitats Conservancy in 2005 to do just that – it currently manages about 5,000 acres of land. Beck is EHC’s president. So, EHL lobbies to save land, and then EHC acts as caretaker for some of the land that does get saved.

Though both groups’ goal is habit conservation across Southern California, they remain small, with only a handful of people managing the groups’ affairs.

Beck said he, Silver and the conservancy’s vice president, Scott Grimes, were driving to Riverside for a meeting last year and almost got creamed by a truck that went diagonally across the freeway.

“That would have wiped out EHL and EHC just like that,” Beck said.

EHC’s portfolio includes thousands of acres in San Diego County. The conservancy also manages Crestridge Ecological Reserve, a 2,800-acre preserve in East County. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife owns the land but pays EHC to take care of it.

Last week, the conservancy added to its own portfolio when it received 410 acres of land in Lakeside that it will own and manage. The $8 million land, known as Lakeside Downs, had once been considered for a housing development. But, after three years of negotiations, the San Diego Association of Governments and the Defense Department decided to buy the land to conserve it.

Beck’s next ask is a bit bigger: $3 billion.

That’s how much he’s hoping the county will set aside for habitat conservation as part of a larger, multibillion-dollar countywide sales tax package. The package may end up before voters next fall.

For the tax package to have a chance, labor, progressives and environmentalist need to support it. Beck is lobbying for it, but other environmentalists may balk.

The money that Beck wants voters to approve was promised for conservation as part of that Multi-Species Conservation Plan but has yet to be provided.

If the tax goes through, some of that money may very well to go to EHL or EHC. Beck faced criticism for supporting the establishment of a taxpayer-funded pot of money in 2004 that might go to his groups. But, he said, his nonprofits have only once received land bought with that money and that was just last week, with Lakeside Downs.

Beck has been a member of the County Planning Commission since 1993. And, because of his nonprofits, he’s faced occasional calls to step aside from commission votes on projects like Lilac Hills. Last week, the state Fair Political Practices Commission said Beck did not have to recuse himself from that vote.

Beck says he’s been over this again and again and he’s not disqualified from voting just because the EHL has taken a position on something before the board.

He said he’s recused himself from votes where he has a direct financial interest in the project. For instance, during a prior vote over Lilac Hills, he recused himself because he was in the process of getting a bridge loan from a family member of one of the project’s developers. That loan never happened, so Beck says he’s now in the clear to vote on the project, which he opposes.

At the heart of Beck’s work is an unassailable mass of land he’s helped conserve. Some of that is the 172,000 acres the regional conservation plan sets aside, including 5,000 or so acres that Beck’s conservancy manages.

Even those who have parted ways with Beck over policy praise his work.

“Allegations of unfortunate deal-making aside, Michael Beck is a great conservationist and should be remembered forever for that,” said David Hogan, who tried to protect vernal pools that have been lost.

Kris Preston, a biologist at the San Diego Management and Monitoring Program, which keeps track of conservation efforts in county, credited Beck with lobbying for money for conservation and working to save land.

“I feel like what we have is what we have but we wouldn’t have this if it weren’t for groups like EHL and EHC pushing,” Preston said.

In one view, the results of the conservation effort so far are mixed: Some species are being saved, some are not, and there’s also a good deal we don’t know. Scientists have said we won’t know for decades if the Multi-Species Conservation Plan will succeed.

Beck disagrees. There’s land he manages or owns that is not part of a development. There are plants on that land. There are animals on that land. Those are real, positive results.

“I can’t think of one of parcel of land that we lost that we wouldn’t have lost anyway and I can think of tens of thousands of acres of land we would have lost without the MSCP,” Beck said.

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