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  • Writer's pictureThe Skunk Corner

Why Should We Protect Our Local Habitats?

Santa Barbara County includes multiple types of habitat, including riparian areas, chaparral, oak woodland, and others. Preserving these habitats is beneficial to not only the wild animals and plants that live in them, but the human population too.

What kinds of habitat can be found in Santa Barbara?

Some of the habitats found in Santa Barbara are:

Riparian: The habitat around a creek. Creeks and the land around them support diverse plants and animals, some of which are endangered such as the Southern California Steelhead Trout and the Western Pond Turtle. In some cases they can also act as natural fuel breaks for wildfires. Left: Riparian area along the San Antonio Creek.

Chaparral: A unique plant community of woody shrubs and other vegetation that can survive in dry areas. Chaparral is extremely rare worldwide, and the chaparral in Santa Barbara supports many endangered or special status species of plants and animals. Right: Chaparral in the Figueroa Mountain area.

Coastal Sage Scrub: A fragile habitat made up of low-growing, soft-leaved plants that exists in dry but foggy areas and supports many different species, including endangered birds. The plants can adapt to dryness by capturing water from fog and/or losing their leaves. Left: Coastal sage plants in the Douglas Family Preserve.

Oak Woodland: Dominated by coast live oaks and other native trees, as well as lower-growing understory plants. Oak woodland is an important habitat for the dusky-footed woodrat, an environmentally sensitive species. Right: Dusky footed woodrat nests in an oak woodland habitat along the San Antonio Creek Trail.

Wetland: Occurs in conjunction with either freshwater or saltwater and supports a variety of species- not only those that live in the water itself, but also raptors that hunt there and small birds that nest in the reeds. Left: Wetland environment at the Sedgwick Reserve in Santa Ynez.

Grassland: Native grassland environments typically include perennial bunching grasses such as purple needlegrass as well as native wildflowers. They support various species of birds, insects, and other animals. Raptors often perch in trees overlooking grasslands, watching for small animals to prey on. Right: Grassland habitat at the Sedgwick Reserve.

What are the benefits to protecting habitats?

Protecting habitats is beneficial to both people and wildlife. For wildlife, well-preserved natural habitats offer food, shelter, clean water, and nesting areas. For people, they offer:

A cleaner environment. Properly functioning ecosystems take in carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen, and the plants in a healthy wetland or riparian environment can help filter the water.

Competition for invasive plants. In a healthy ecosystem, native plants can help prevent invasive species from taking over. An ecosystem that has been disturbed by improper management can be quickly overwhelmed by invasive weeds. Some of these are poisonous (such as castor bean), contribute to flooding (such as Arundo donax), or have other negative consequences.

Less erosion. Native plants can help anchor the soil in habitats such as chaparral to prevent erosion. This keeps excess debris out of creeks, allowing riparian species to thrive, communities to be safer from flooding, and the ocean to be cleaner.

Fewer instances of stray wildlife “invading” residential areas. Oftentimes, sightings of animals such as coyotes in neighborhoods that cause neighbors to complain are due to their habitats being damaged in some way by human activities.

Preserving nature for future generations. Being able to explore nature and observe the animals and plants that thrive in healthy habitats is a valuable experience for children, as well as adults. If we fail to protect our habitats and they disappear, it will be nearly impossible to get them back and future generations will not be able to enjoy them.

What is Environmentally Sensitive Habitat (ESH)?

Environmentally Sensitive Habitat (ESH) is a legal term for areas of habitat that have been found especially valuable or necessary to preserve. ESH comes with certain restrictions on development and other disturbances so that it can be kept in its natural state as much as possible.

Different jurisdictions have different definitions of ESH and different restrictions on what can be done within it. For example, what qualifies as ESH in coastal areas, which are affected by the Coastal Act, may or may not qualify as ESH in other parts of Santa Barbara. Currently, some jurisdictions in Santa Barbara are updating their guidelines on what qualifies as ESH.

Many people are supporting the protection of sensitive habitats. However, relatively few but vocal residents of the jurisdictions in question oppose protecting sensitive habitats because they have the misunderstanding that it will prevent them from developing, using their land for agriculture, or safely managing vegetation on their property. However, ESH and human activities are not mutually exclusive; ESH restrictions just make sure that development and other disturbances happen where they would cause the least impact on habitat, and ensure that when habitats are damaged by development or clearing, restoration is required to make up for the loss.

It is important that the most valuable habitat- habitat that is rare, supports species of special concern, or provides unique benefits to the environment that would be lost if it was destroyed- gets classified as ESH so that it can be preserved.

What can I do to help protect habitats?

Although it is ultimately up to the decision-making authorities, such as the County, to decide what habitat gets protected, everyone can help. One way to help is to simply explore your local habitats and become familiar with them. Another way is to express your opinion to local government officials. For example, on August 14, 2018, there is a County Board of Supervisors meeting that will result in a decision on whether to approve the ESH map for the Eastern Goleta Valley Community Plan (postponed from July 3). Approval of the map will help protect habitat, including chaparral, in the Goleta area so that future generations can enjoy it. To further the benefits, it is being suggested that the ESH map is modified to include data from the state on the locations of rare species. This will make the ESH map more complete and more useful for protecting habitat areas. Members of the public will be allowed to speak at the meeting, each for up to 3 minutes, and even if you do not want to speak, just being present at the meeting will show that you support the preservation of habitat. The Board of Supervisors also is currently debating whether to classify only “rare” chaparral or other important chaparral as ESH in Gaviota. For more information, see the website of the Santa Barbara Urban Creeks Council, a local nonprofit that is advocating for our creeks and supports habitat preservation.

Take action to protect our habitats:

Attend the Hearing: August 14, 2018 (call 568-2240 for estimated time of hearing) , 105 East Anapamu Street

Email the Board of Supervisors today to state your support for mapping and protecting Sensitive Habitats (ESH) in the Gaviota Coast area and in the Eastern Goleta Valley Community Plan Areas! Clerk of the Board


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