Judith Lewis Mernit brings the environment home

By Joe Donnelly

Judith Lewis Mernit revels in the astonishing existence of the Ballona Wetlands in Playa del Rey Photo by Hank Cherry

Judith Lewis Mernit revels in the astonishing existence of the Ballona Wetlands in Playa del Rey
Photo by Hank Cherry

In the southwestern corner of the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve, adjacent to Playa del Rey’s Titmouse Park, there is an almost perfectly oval, sandy interruption to the Darwinian scrum of salt grass, ice plant, marsh and slough surrounding it. From the window seat of a jet pulling out of nearby LAX, this manicured patch probably looks like a crop circle in a wilderness. Down here, though, it’s merely the riding ring once used by a teenaged Elizabeth Taylor to train for “National Velvet,” a 1944 talkie about a girl and her bad-boy horse.

I’m standing in this ring and looking east in an attempt to see through the eyes of Judith Lewis Mernit. The view is stunning: the Los Angeles basin from Baldy to Bel Air unfolds in all its enigmatic glory. On the perimeter, the Santa Monica, Verdugo and San Gabriel mountains lineup according to both proximity and height.

“Just the fact that this exists is so astonishing,” says Lewis Mernit.

She’s talking about the state-owned and protected land upon which we’ve mildly trespassed to access this vista. She could, however, be speaking about any number of astonishments that she has chronicled during her tenure as Los Angeles’ best environmental journalist. Things like the rich network of streams and creeks flowing under our cemented city; the aquifers being replenished by progressive planning in unlikely places such as Sun Valley; the mountain lion that lives in Griffith Park.

“To have 600 acres — on the coast! — that haven’t been built on. Oh, my god, what do you do with that?”

That question has been the subject of intense debate among the many parties interested in the future of the wetlands. By the end of the year, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Coastal Conservancy are expected to release a long-delayed environmental impact report on plans to return the reserve to something like it’s natural state. Doing so would require pretty major surgery — removing “invasive” flora and replanting native species, tearing up levees and culverts, setting parts of the stream free to meander.

This plan has its fans.

Others are concerned about the damage such a heavy lift would do to the species that have evolved along with the habitat over the 100-plus years since the wetlands was in anything approximating its natural state. How, they wonder, do we decide what is natural, or best, which are not necessarily the same thing, and by what measures?

With characteristically graceful prose, Lewis Mernit navigates these questions
and introduces us to the people working obsessively to shape the future of the reserve in a recent story for High Country News, “The Los Angeles Wetlands Wars.” The piece is essential reading for anyone interested in how the dramas of conservation play out not only here but in increasingly urbanized environments everywhere.

“One of the things I wanted to do with this Ballona Wetlands story was to show how everybody who’s talking about this really cares about what happens here,” says Lewis Mernit. “It’s life or death. The reason the battles erupt is because it means so much to have this in Los Angeles.”

It’s fairly safe to say the environment is the principal narrative of our time: How we manage the challenges that come with climate change, post-industrial economic development and over-stressed resources underlies almost any other discussion we’re having. But being an environmental journalist in Los Angeles is still kind of anomalous. Here, we tend to think of the environment as something that exists somewhere outside of the city — maybe up in those mountains, or out past those breakers.

When you stand in a place like the Ballona Wetlands, though, and breathe in the salt marsh and the rare tease of a June downpour and catch glimpses of the many birds, big-winged and small, you begin to grasp the primal geography of this basin and you start to see the city as a more primal place.

Kind of like how Lewis Mernit sees it.

“I’m really into urban restoration because I see how disconnected people in cities are from nature. …I think this is changing a lot,” she says, and her stories for High Country News, Sierra, the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Weekly, Mother Jones and more have done as much as anything to integrate me with the city. “We’re so disconnected, but at the same time we have so many resources to get connected.”

As we talk, the Hollywood sign is discernible in the distance on its perch atop Mt. Lee, a gateway to one of those resources — Griffith Park.

“Griffith Park is a miracle,” says Lewis Mernit.

Sure is, and one wonders how many of the hopefuls banging out scripts in the Franklin Avenue coffee shops below the Hollywood sign are aware that mountain lion P22 has claimed the hills about them as his home. Lewis Mernit was among the first to write about the significance of P22’s incursion.

“That an apex predator can persist in an urban wildland that way, it kind of gives us hope in a time when we have no hope,” she says. “People disconnect because… The climate is changing and I can’t do anything about it! But here, there’s this puma living in Griffith Park and it means we can bring things back.”

Currently in Los Angeles there are ambitious (and expensive) plans in the works to restore sections of the Los Angeles River into something that, while not quite wild, would enable us to experience the city for what it really is: a vast, ancient watershed. The Rim of the Valley project proposes to link the Santa Monica Mountains with the Santa Susannas, Verdugos and, ultimately, to Griffith Park and the Los Angeles River, eventually turning the entire corridor into an extension of the federally protected Santa Monica National Recreation Area. P22 traversed a good bit of these urban wilds to get to his current home.

Could it be, I wonder, that after so many decades of trying to keep the environment as far away as possible, Los Angeles is on the verge of rethinking its relationship to nature?

“Oh, god, yes. I really think so. I think it’s amazing and precedent-setting that the Army Corps of Engineers has a billion dollars now to take out 11 miles of concrete from the L.A. River,” says Lewis Mernit. “We don’t tell environmental and conservation success stories enough.”

I’ve known Lewis Mernit for many years and have long appreciated her easy laugh and fearless curiosity. She’s been an actor, aerialist, open-water kayaker, blues singer, competitive dog trainer and, once while researching a story, an exotic dancer. If it wasn’t the environment, it would be something else, but I’m glad the biggest story is the one that’s got her attention.

“I think when you’re a journalist, you’re always looking at bad news, bad news, bad news, because that’s what everybody’s projecting,” says Lewis Mernit. “What’s turned me on about environmental journalism is people like [conservationist] Jessica Hall, who I did that “Lost Streams of Los Angeles” story about, who have picked this corner of something that’s so important to them and they’ve devoted themselves to it so passionately and wholeheartedly.”