The Myth of Mitigation

When forest is cut down to make way for development, we are told that trees will be “replaced”. Often, this so-called mitigation offers a “two-for-one” replacement ratio. On the face of it, this sounds like a good deal; getting two replacement trees where one was destroyed. In reality, a mature Monterey Pine or Coast Live Oak cannot be “replaced”.

Even if it were feasible, a mature tree would have to be taken from another location, leaving that place degraded. The only alternative are seedlings grown in a nursery.
Can a seedling really replace a mature tree? Given that the length of time it takes for these trees to mature is 40 years or more, the answer is no. Proponents of mitigation argue that while it takes time, future generations will benefit from a more robust forest. But is that really true? To answer this question, one needs to look at the mitigation projects that were undertaken decades ago. And here in the Del Monte Forest, we can do just that.

The protected Sawmill Borrow after over twenty years of mitigation

When the resort and golf course were built at Spanish Bay, vast amounts of raw material (soil, sand and rock) were removed from Sawmill Gulch (sometimes referred to as “Sawmill Borrow”, implying that what was “borrowed” would somehow be returned). The amount of earth removed from the borrow was so enormous, a new road was constructed for this purpose (S.F.B. Morse Drive). In exchange for allowing this huge development in the Coastal Zone, the California Coastal Commission stipulated that the damage to this area be mitigated. Has that promise been kept? Sadly, no. In fact, the Pebble Beach Company has argued since that time that because of the degraded state of Sawmill Gulch, it should be used for an equestrian center or, alternatively, a sewage pond.

Although a recent flurry of activity has improved the area somewhat, it seems a half-hearted effort at best, and decades after a legally binding commitment was made. What spurred this recent public relations campaign? In my opinion, harsh criticism and a desire to assuage concerns about the latest round of development. What is perhaps most notable about the recent effort to improve the perception of mitigation is the concentration of work adjacent to vehicle traffic. A bucolic buffer zone has been created where it is most visible. But one need only take a short stroll beyond the roads to find the truth of the matter; that the area is far from its natural state and little effort has been expended to repair the damage.

Given the nature of mitigation, the lack of follow-up monitoring, and the history of broken promises, we should not be fooled by assurances of forest restoration and protection that never seem to materialize.

By Peter Mathews