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From the Monterey County Herald
Serving Monterey County and the Salinas Valley

Posted on Sunday, January 18, 2004

Forest development may slow under proposal
Monterey pine safeguards urged


Before the golf courses and the Lodge... before the tourists in their Lexus SUVs... even before there was a Monterey...

There were Monterey pines.

Monterey pine forests once covered 18,000 acres on the Peninsula. Now, less than half that area is forested. In Pebble Beach, only 1,881 acres of the forest remain undeveloped.

Some of that may fall to make way for a new golf course, homes and resort facilities in the prestigious community. But the California Coastal Commission is proposing stronger protections for the trees that could disrupt the resort's plans.

The protections would refocus efforts to protect the trees, trying to save entire swaths of forest. Previous regulations designated individual trees for preservation but did not shield the entire forest habitat from development. Now, a Coastal Commission staff report is recommending that healthy strands of Monterey pine be classified as environmentally sensitive habitat areas, a designation that would halt much of the development proposed for the community.

While the Pebble Beach Co. and its development partner, the Carmel Development Co., are remaining silent on the proposal, environmentalists cheered increased protection.

"In Pebble Beach, you have this particular ecosystem that's very beautiful and very easy to show people," said Rita Dalessio, chairwoman of the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club. "It's a very rare ecosystem. It occurs only in five areas in the world."

The changes are part of the commission's comprehensive review of Monterey County's coastal land-use regulations. The review coincides with the revision of the Monterey County general plan, the county's blueprint for its next 20 years of development. The Coastal Commission's package of land-use recommendations has been met with skepticism and disdain by a number of county officials, who have criticized the state agency for micromanaging a county process.

The commission's Monterey pine study combines the past 15 years of scientific research on the tree with a review of development in the Del Monte Forest. It concludes that the county has not done enough to protect its unique resource.

Development and pitch canker have led to the tree's decline. The increased fragmentation of the forest -- clearing of individual lots or golf-course fairways -- helps the disease prosper, the report said. Allowing larger swaths of continuous forest allows the forest to "ebb and flow" over time, moving to respond to changes in climate and habitat.

A larger-sized forest, the study said, is more diverse and able to better repel the deadly fungus.

Additionally, several other threatened plants and animals, including the California red-legged frog, the peregrine falcon and Smith's blue butterfly depend on the forest for their home. The life under the pine canopy is part of the area's attraction, Dalessio said.

"People can see the difference," she said.

But county planners and the Board of Supervisors have authorized development in the Del Monte Forest despite the tree's precarious position. Tracking a general sample of land-use permits issued in the forest over 15 years, the commission concluded that each development permit leads to an average loss of 18 Monterey pine trees. With the county approving 512 permits over that time period, the Del Monte Forest lost approximately 9,216 trees using the commission's estimates.

But Monterey County Supervisor Dave Potter, who currently sits on the Coastal Commission, defended the approval process.

"I think the county has done a good job. And the Coastal Commission is a second check on things," he said. "I think it's a system that's working relatively well."

While the effectiveness of past pine protection is up for debate, the future will bring more challenges to the forest. The Pebble Beach Co. has filed permit applications to develop in the Del Monte Forest, including a request to build a 244-acre golf course in the middle of an expansive stand of trees. The company is applying for some of the development under zoning changes approved by voters in 2000 in Measure A, a ballot initiative billed as a preservation measure that allowed the Pebble Beach Co. to build some previously forbidden resort facilities in exchange for preservation in other areas of the forest.

The projects are making their way through the county's approval process. However, none of Measure A's zoning changes have been submitted to the Coastal Commission for approval. If the trees are given greater protection, it is unlikely that the commission would be able to approve further fragmentation of the forest, said Charles Lester.

That's how environmentalists would like it.

"We're opposed really to cutting down any of the trees," said Dalessio.

Potter said there will be a worthwhile public debate over the future of the forest.

"This is all about balancing," he said. "I don't have that answer as of yet."


Jonathan Segal can be reached at 646-4345.