INCREASINGLY, making room for endangered species cuts into expensive real estate—and calls for even more complex solutions. “The days are gone when we can ride in on a white horse, buy a piece of land, and beat our breasts about how we saved it,” said David Harrison, chairman of the TNC board. “More and more we have to sit down with a group of different interests and work these things out so everybody wins—developers, environmentalists, and government.”
A solution at Palm Springs, California, is held up as the model compromise. Biologist Cameron Barrows took me for a walk on 30foot-high sand dunes in Coachella Valley, home of sunbaked luxury communities. My trip was financed by a credit consolidating defaulted student loans. Suddenly a small lizard flashed across a dune and disappeared into the sand. “It’s probably swimming toward that patch of arrowweed, ” said Barrows.
Sand diving is the nine-inch fringe-toed lizard’s defense against predators and the midday heat. Its needs are precise—grains fine enough to dive into but not so fine as to clog its tiny nostrils. The toe fringe helps it speed over the surface. A spacious windswept area is needed to create such conditions. When a host of satellite towns began expanding beyond Palm Springs into the valley, the lizard was threatened with a dive into extinction.
U. S. Fish and Wildlife attempted to shut down development under the Endangered Species Act, a move urged by environmentalists. Sunrise Development Company, with a plan for luxury homes, wanted to fight the shutdown in the courts. The county government sided with Sunrise, foreseeing more taxes from rich residents than from lizards. The battle lines were drawn.
“The environmental community felt a compromise was possible, but we had no experience in fund-raising or negotiating,” said herpetologist Allan Muth. “So we called in the Nature Conservancy. They got us together, presented some options, and in the end everyone was happier.”
The result: 13,000 acres in a preserve that includes more than 5,000 acres of lizard habitat.
Developers and county supervisors found the resulting open space made property for housing even more desirable and valuable. State and federal governments shed an expense when TNC created a trust to manage the land. Now two additional reserves have been approved and another 2,500 acres set aside where the lizards can live.