Public access to the Ballona Wetlands is part of what the organization in charge of managing the restoration of 600 acres of the ecological preserve calls an early action plan, which will also include a series of new trails for viewing the wetlands.

But a coalition of environmental groups is seeking public support to lobby state officials away from implementing their plan to create pedestrian nature paths that the groups believe could be harmful not only to the wetlands but to its inhabitants as well.

The two sites are in Marina del Rey and Playa del Rey, each near wildlife populations that nest near the planned entrances that the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission is advocating.

The Marina trail, near Fisherman’s Village, recommends fencing off an area that would be separate from a nesting site of the Great Blue Heron. The proposed trail would be off of Fiji Way, across from Shanghai Reds restaurant, a site known as Area A of the wetlands.

Marcia Hanscom, a co-director of the Playa del Rey-based Ballona Institute, says the proposed pathway would create an environment where the herons would no longer feel comfortable to nest and breed. Oher groups in opposition to the state’s plan include the Sierra Club, Coastal Law Enforcement Action Network and Access for All.

At a recent open house hosted by the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, an environmental and restoration group that boasts a membership of over 600, Hanscom says she witnessed a heron that was gathering twigs for a nest vacate the area after it was approached by a ranger giving a tour of the proposed trail.

“Wildlife has flourished in Area A, largely because it’s been closed to the public,” Hanscom said.

The Ballona Institute would prefer having a pathway outside the fence along Fiji Way, she says.

“There could be observation decks so that people could get a really good view of the wetlands,” Hanscom suggested.

Removing non-native plants and bushes outside the fence would make a trail that impacts less on the herons, she said. “(Enjoying) the wetlands should be more about seeing than disturbing,” Hanscom said.

Plans for Playa del Rey would include another trail behind Gordon’s Market off of Culver Boulevard at the site of the entrance where the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands conducts its tours of what is called Area B. There are also proposals for a native plant garden around an existing state-owned parking lot.

The Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, also based in Playa del Rey, says the state’s recommendations being proposed at Fiji Way and behind Gordon’s Market are more than adequate.

“We don’t see any need to move them or to change them,” Friends of Ballona Wetlands Executive Director Lisa Fimiani said. “The state is just following through on plans that have been in the works for a long time.”

In a letter three years ago to the state Department of Fish and Game, the agency that was managing the restoration of the wetlands, Fimiani’s group issued its support for the elements of the early action plan.

“Given the sizeable public investment of public funds for project area property acquisition, the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands believes the early action plan demonstrates a good faith effort by the state to produce public benefit from the restoration project in a timely manner, where appropriate,” Jacob Lika, then the organization’s president, wrote to officials of Fish and Game and the California Coastal Conservancy. “In general, the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands strongly supports all of the elements of the 2007 early action plan, including the Gordon’s Market enhancement, the Fisherman’s Village area trail, ecological signs and north levee interpretive signs.”

Hanscom’s group, which has taken its alternative trail plan before the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa and the Venice Neighborhood Council, said a pathway near the southern end of the Ballona Creek near the levee at the end of Pacific Avenue would be a better alternative.

“The Audubon Society leads its tours there,” she noted. “We don’t see anything wrong with what they’re doing.”

Cheryl Burnett, a member of the Westchester-Playa council who represents the area where the state-endorsed pathway lies, sent a letter to Dr. Shelly Luce, the executive director of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, and Sean Bergquist, the commission’s director of watershed programs, following the presentation of their restoration plans last month to the local council.

“Given that I live in lower Playa del Rey and represent the residents and businesses in the area, what occurs with the wetlands is very important to me. I want to be very clear: I support increased access to the wetlands 100 percent,” Burnett wrote. “It is an undiscovered and unknown treasure in Southern California and Playa del Rey should be so proud to have Ballona in our backyards. We should also be open and willing to share this precious area with everyone in the region.

“That said, the context of our community plays a role in how we approach all that is facing our neighborhood. Huge potential developments, ongoing parking and traffic issues and a general sense that we have no say in what is happening to us gives people a frustrated, even obstructionist view to everything,” she continued. “Please know that is not my intent; however, it is very important to me that when my community is asked for its viewpoint, that it is considered and valued.

“I work in government too and know all about ‘checking the box’ of community meetings.”

Burnett was referring to a community meeting earlier this summer hosted by the state Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority in Playa del Rey.

“It is my hope that we can work together to share this beautiful, treasured land with Southern California, while recognizing the valid concerns of those of us who live in the area,” Burnett wrote.

Hanscom said she was disappointed in the Friends’ position on the state recommended nature trails.

“I guess we’re not willing to trade protecting birds and wildlife for insider status,” she said.

Bergquist did not return calls for comment. A voicemail message at Luce’s office said she was out of the office until Sept. 2.

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