The manager of the Ballona Freshwater Marsh and the co-directors of a Playa del Rey environmental group are now on the same side of an ongoing debate on how a rare flower should be safeguarded during a city restoration and beautification project in the Ballona Lagoon.
The Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, a 30-year-old nonprofit environmental organization that has been involved in habitat restoration in the wetlands, supports a recommendation by the California Coastal Commission that would create a rare plant preserve on Ballona Lagoon’s west bank near the site of several hundred recently discovered Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushions (Chaenactis glabriuscula DC. var. orcuttiana), an imperiled sand dune flower that blooms once a year.
The Coastal Commission will hear an amendment on Friday, Aug. 6 to the Los Angeles Department of Public Works’ application to restore an area east of Pacific Avenue to construct an irrigation system, a pedestrian trail and the newly rare plant preserve designed to maintain and protect Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushion and other native plants.
A hearing to consider the city’s plan, which is funded by a Los Angeles County grant, was cancelled earlier this month.
“The Friends of Ballona Wetlands staff have reviewed the staff report for the subject coastal permit amendment and support the staff’s recommendations,” one of the group’s co-directors, Richard Beban, wrote in a letter to the commission July 16. “We recommend adoption of the proposed amendment.
“The Friends of the Ballona Wetlands agrees with the proposed special conditions No. 11, which requires staff approval of a restoration plan prepared by a qualified restoration ecologist prior to permit issuance, and has specific recommendations for sprinkler systems that would not harm native plants like the Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushion,” Beban wrote.
The Ballona Institute, like Beban’s group, is a Playa del Rey-based environmental entity. Its co-directors, Marcia Hanscom and Robert “Roy” van de Hoek, agree with many positions of the city’s plan but feel that the flower’s status and the fact that it is an annual, or a once-a-year flower, makes it imperative that it be shielded from any potential harm.
“Annual plants are not easy to grow,” Hanscom noted. “You can’t afford to lose one plant.”
Now, Dr. Edith Read, a Friends of Ballona board member, has revised her earlier assessment regarding the city’s restoration plan.
“I’m inclined to agree with (the Ballona Institute) that the walk path should be rerouted away from the preserve and that the Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushion and other native flowers should be protected,” Read told The Argonaut Monday, July 26.
The scientist, who specializes in plant ecology, initially joined the Friends of Ballona in its support for the city’s proposal, which includes building a pedestrian walkpath from Jib to Topsail streets.
Read now believes that having the walkway near the colony of rare flowers would not be in the flower’s best interests.
“While there has been an informal use of the area by people who walk there, I’m not sure if having a walk path so close to the Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushions would be practical,” she said.
Agreement on any topic related to the environment by the two groups seems to be as rare as the imperiled Orcutt’s Yellow, whose discovery was first reported by The Argonaut in March. Beban’s organization has supported the restoration efforts by the state Department of Fish and Game in the Ballona Wetlands and the Playa Vista commercial and residential development, which at one time employed Read as one of its biological consultants.
Hanscom and van de Hoek disagree with many of the state’s ideas on restoring the remaining 400 acres of environmental reserve and have been fighting Playa Vista for more than a decade.
A commission biologist, Dr. Jonna Engle, agrees with the city’s original action plan regarding the trails.
“I worked closely with the California Coastal (Commission) analyst assigned to this project and a (California Fish and Game Department, which owns most of the remaining wetlands) botanist to insure that the amendment to the Los Angeles Ballona Lagoon Phase IIIa Enhancement Plan will cause the least possible adverse impacts to the Ballona Lagoon environmentally sensitive habitat area (ESHA), including the Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushion population, while still providing the improved public access trail and recreational opportunities approved by the Los Angeles coastal development permit,” Engel wrote in an e-mail response.
In its amendment request, Public Works has agreed to shorten the public access trail from five to four feet.
Hanscom said Read’s reassessment of the walk trail and the planned irrigation system illustrate that many local environmental organizations are on the same page and that city officials should reconsider portions of their beautification plan.
“It’s clear now that environmental groups are in agreement. That says a lot,” she said.
Lauren Skinner, a spokeswoman with Public Works, said city officials are now planning to take out much of the irrigation proposal from their plan.
“We do not plan to plant shrubs anymore, so we’re redefining the planting area,” Skinner said.
Annual native plants like the pincushion do not require watering, van de Hoek, the institute’s lead biologist, says. “These are annual plants that get their water naturally from rainfall,” he explained.
Read rejects a drip system and would consider a watering system for other flowers “only if it was properly designed and if it were to establish perennial plants.”
There was a time that Read questioned whether the imperiled flowers — which the California Native Plant Society lists as rare, threatened or endangered — were actually Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushions, despite confirmation from several biologists.
“I would like to see the identification of this plant confirmed by one or two additional qualified botanists. The common yellow pincushion, Chaenactis glabriuscula var. glabriuscula, has also been reported historically from the Playa del Rey and Ballona regions,” the biologist wrote after learning that Hanscom and van de Hoek called city workers’ attention to the discovery of the pincushions. “A lot of people are jumping to premature conclusions based on very thin evidence,” she had said.
She now says she is confident that they are indeed Orcutt’s Yellow.
“I think it’s clear now after more research, that they are the rare Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushions,” Read confirmed.
Skinner said she believed that Hanscom and van de Hoek had misinterpreted the recommendation in the amendment by the city’s environmental specialist, William Jones.
“I think there was a misunderstanding about what some of our plans were,” she said.
The only new item since its earlier request that the city will be requesting at the commission hearing will be the restoration of a volunteer or “unimproved” walkway, Skinner added.
The restoration and beautification plan, which was scheduled to resume in September pending approval of the city’s amendment, will hopefully remain on track, despite the delay, Skinner said.
If the commission rejects the recommendations, the project could be vulnerable to dissolution, she pointed out.
“Without a permit, we may lose our grant, and then we won’t be able to do any restoration,” the spokeswoman noted.
Hanscom is eager to see how the commission will react after reviewing input from scientists like Read, van de Hoek and others.
“We’ll see if ecology or politics and money win out,” she said.
Kelly Schmoker of the Department of Fish and Game did not return calls for comment.