Ballona Wetlands: Proposed center in ecological reserve widens rift between state agencies and some environmental groups
By Gary Walker
News of an interpretive center planned for the Ballona Wetlands is the latest point of disagreement between local conservation organizations that have been involved with the 600-acre reserve for several years and state agencies with disparate views on how it should be refurbished.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, formerly the Department of Fish and Game, entered into an agreement with the Santa Monica based Annenberg Foundation that will allow the construction of a $50-million facility that will be located near Culver Boulevard in what is known as Area C, near the 90 Freeway.
“We hope this center will become a place where community members can come to learn how nature works, and how each of them is a part of it,” said Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton H. Bonham. “This effort is the kind of legacy project we need, with education programs to help instill a sense of stewardship in these urban communities that might otherwise not be fulfilled.”
The foundation, which has assisted with funding in other local ventures including the Westchester Park Skate Plaza, signed a memorandum of understanding Jan. 28 with the Fish and Wildlife.
The California Coastal Conservancy and the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, which are also involved in the planned state-sponsored wetlands restoration efforts at Ballona, are supporting the construction of the interpretive center and are signatories to the document.
The memorandum states the center will encompass approximately 15-20 acres of land and will provide funding for a “uniform and design related to the restoration project.”
Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Jordan Traverso said the project would be subject to an environmental analysis at the state and federal level. “We expected it to be released to the public in late spring or early summer,” she said.
The new center would be adjacent to the Culver-Marina Little League fields and would include an auditorium, classrooms, exhibits on wildlife and domestic animals, facilities for an animal adoption and care program and on-site veterinary facilities for animals.
Liza deVilla Ameen, a spokeswoman with the Annenberg Foundation, said the foundation might lend a hand in improving the nearby baseball fields, which are in need of repair.
“All of Area C has been neglected and can be enhanced and improved,” she said. “At this time, we are still considering enhancements and improvements to the ball fields.”
The Del Rey Neighborhood Council will be examining the memorandum of understanding as well as the plans for the facility at its March meeting. The baseball fields fall within the local council’s boundaries.
“I have received a lot of public input already about this project since it is right in the heart of Del Rey,” said Elizabeth Zamora, chair of the council’s land use and planning committee.
The planned center faces opposition from two environmental organizations that have been battling the state over the wetlands revitalization.
The Ballona Wetlands Land Trust issued a statement Jan. 25 in opposition to the construction of the center.
“The Ballona Wetlands Land Trust strongly supports keeping the entire 600-acre ecological reserve intact in a natural state, free of building structures and hardscaping,” the organization said in a statement. “While (our organization) fully supports the creation of an interpretive center, we encourage the Annenberg Foundation to find a suitable site for this facility that does not encroach on the remaining 600-acre, publicly owned Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve, which is a small fraction of the original 2,000-plus-acre ecosystem.”
Ballona Wetlands Land Trust Executive Director Walter Lamb seemed dismayed with some of the components of the planned nature center.
“The fact that retail space is even being considered within the ecological reserve makes clear that the agencies we are trusting to be good stewards of this ecosystem have a very different view of conservation and restoration than we do,” he said. “We ought to be acquiring more adjacent land to add to the reserve, not paving over what little is left.
“We can’t keep sacrificing an acre here and an acre there to the concrete jungle if we want to leave any semblance of nature to future generations.”
Marcia Hanscom, the co-director of the Playa del Rey based Ballona Institute, is also in favor of having a nature-based center for the public to learn more about the ecological reserve and its inhabitants. But like Lamb’s organization, she is against having any structures in the wetlands that could harm wildlife as well as take away precious acreage from restoration.
“I don’t call putting a snack bar in the wetlands improvements. I don’t call putting a parking lot in the wetlands improvements,” Hanscom said.
Traverso said the interpretive center could serve the public from an outreach and learning standpoint. “This is a great opportunity to bring an educational component to the wetlands,” she countered.
State Sen. Ted Lieu, whose coastal district includes the Ballona Wetlands, said he is interested in seeing more details about the nature center and pledged that it will be examined carefully.
“I appreciate the Annenberg Foundation’s willingness to invest in our community and I look forward to learning about this proposal,” said the senator. “This proposal will be fully vetted, including its potential impacts on the environment and I encourage all parties and the public to participate in the process.”
Despite what some may think, deVilla Ameen said the foundation will not be involved with the wetlands restoration.
“Our focus is on the interpretive center,” she said.
The wetlands are slated to undergo an extensive renovation led by Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
A notice of preparation is scheduled to be released at the end of January or early February and the interpretive center will be included in the environmental analysis, Traverso said.
Wetlands-related organizations have long been protective of the land. Nearly four years ago, the Ballona Institute protested a city Planning Commission proposal that would have created the possibility of establishing a billboard district in the wetlands, close to the area where the Ballona interpretive facility would be built.
DeVilla Ameen said if all goes well, the center could begin in the summer of 2014.