ANTIOCH -- Making her second visit to East Contra Costa in less than two months, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Monday lauded the region as a model for the nation in the area of habitat conservation.
Her visit, sandwiched between a speech at Stanford University and a San Francisco appearance, sought to shine a spotlight on the East Contra Costa County Habitat Conservation Plan, which was launched more than a decade ago to preserve wetlands, endangered species and open space while standardizing the collection of fees from developers.
"What (the plan has) done here is a really good illustration of multiple local and state agencies working together with federal agencies and nonprofit partners," she said. "You're setting a really great tone and tenor."
After years of planning, land acquisition began in 2008. Since then, about one-third of the roughly 30,000 acres targeted in the regional preserve system from the former Naval Weapons Station site in Concord to the Los Vaqueros Reservoir south of Brentwood has been purchased at a cost of $59 million -- in part funded with grant money from Jewell's department.
The local plan is one of 14 regional habitat-conservation plans in California that are approved or are in development, according to the Interior Department.
"I applaud you moving to a landscape level of understanding, instead of piecemeal. That's where the rest of the country needs to go," Jewell told about a dozen stakeholders high atop Kreiger Peak during a hike north of Mount Diablo.
"You are saying where are the corridors, where is the habitat, where is the development potential, where are the conflicts; that's what we need to do across the landscapes."
Robert Doyle, general manager of the East Bay Regional Park District, said coordination among the various agencies has helped provide popular trails and preserve open space in a rapidly growing suburban area.
Local government agencies in the conservation plan are Clayton, Pittsburg, Oakley, Brentwood and the county. Jewell, who asked several questions during the hike and took copious notes during a stakeholder meeting, directly asked why Antioch is not in the group.
John Kopchik, the conservancy's executive director, said the city is in the "considering process" of joining and noted he made a presentation before the City Council in October.
"They're thinking through what makes sense to them," he said.
Kopchik was lauded by several local leaders and homebuilders for helping push the plan forward. Jewell called him a "pied piper."
"John saw the development community as an opportunity, rather than an adversary," said Mike Serpa, principal at Concentric Development Group, during a round-table discussion at Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve in Antioch, adding that he's a plan proponent. "If we can find those marriage points, we can find some benefits."
The effectiveness of the conservation plans also shows the importance of the Endangered Species Act, Jewell said.
The former chief executive of REI also commented on the East Bay Regional Park District's efforts to hold several programs for youths and creativity in its land use.
In March, Jewell toured a federal water storage and pumping plant in Byron to get a firsthand look at a key piece of California's water infrastructure.
Several key environmental issues important to the Obama administration are present in California and the region, including climate change, she said.
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.