By Marcia Hanscom
Editor’s Note: Hanscom is executive director of the Ballona Institute and chair of the Sierra Club’s Ballona Wetlands Restoration Committee. She is responding to the March 3 news article “Killing Plants to Save Wetlands,” about a restoration group’s plan to remove non-native ice plant from three acres of wetland in the hope that dormant native plants will take its place.
More than 20 years after the Pacific chorus frog emerged as the totem animal of the Ballona Wetlands, the frog calls out again.
Choirs of frog voices were once loud and clear in the darkness of the Ballona Valley. The Pacific chorus frog (pseudacris regilla) lived in seasonal rain-fed ponds and willow sloughs cut through low-lying lands by several streams. Frog voices are a common memory shared by Baby Boomers who explored this river floodplain.
In December 1995, Steven Spielberg declared in response to a rainy morning protest, where activists dressed in frog suits: “I also welcome every frog in L.A. to please come to Playa Vista. You’ll have a home here too.” The activists were protesting Spielberg’s DreamWorks becoming real estate developers poised to destroy some of L.A.’s last coastal marshes.
We were grateful when DreamWorks exited the wetlands in July 1999. They’d had enough after 3½ years of movie premiere protests, scores of articles and a political street theatre troupe called FrogWorks performing at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. Lawsuits abounded, and public opinion had shifted dramatically against them for their proposed destruction of wetlands and, yes, frog habitat.
Playa Vista, still under construction, has a diminished footprint after our coalition convinced Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 that more than 600 acres of land should be protected for wildlife; nearly 400 of those acres would have been otherwise wiped out.
Unfortunately, our efforts were too late to save the many sloughs and seasonal ponds below LMU that were home to the Pacific chorus frog. I remember watching from the bluffs, sobbing as bulldozers ripped out mature willow thickets. Gone are the voices of a million frogs — voices that haunt my memory today.
Three Pacific chorus frog populations remain at Ballona. One is in Playa Vista’s freshwater basin, managed heavily with thousands of cattails and tules cleared out annually due to toxic runoff contamination. We worry about those frogs not only because of pollution, but also because nonnative bullfrogs are present — and are predicted to eventually displace the tiny frogs.
The second remaining frog habitat is a small marsh near the Inn at Playa del Rey, and a third is also near busy Culver Boulevard. Often after a rainstorm, my biologist partner, Roy, lures me to go out to one of these two locations to listen to the beautiful frog songs.
We believe the second population is likely to collapse, as the city of Los Angeles joined with the California Coastal Commission staff to grant permission to destroy the marsh each year and pretend this small area will alleviate flooding; it never does.
The fate of the third location is up for a vote at the Coastal Commission this Thursday, March 10.
Commission staff is recommending approval to lay heavy plastic atop three acres of habitat, ostensibly to eradicate non-native iceplant. But this wetland patch is where the most vigorous chorus of frogs still exists.
The frogs live in soil kept moist by iceplant! Numerous native plant populations grow and live amidst the iceplant: salt grass, cressa, seaside heliotrope, alkali rye and yerba mansa. It’s one of
the richest mixtures of wetland species in the region.
The plastic would heat up and burn the iceplant to a crisp — also frying everything else, we believe, and essentially sterilizing the soil and killing all life under the surface. California ground squirrels living beneath the soil’s surface have been documented eating the iceplant’s sweet fruits. Bees and butterflies sip the iceplant flowers’ juices.
The Coastal Commission is in the midst of political turmoil. Anything could happen next week, and results cannot be predicted.
It’s worth speaking out. The children of Los Angeles, bombarded with sirens and other harsh urban sounds, deserve to have a place where they can hear the soothing songs of chorus frogs.
Please join me in Santa Monica on March 10 to speak out for the frogs. We need each other.
The California Coastal Commission’s March 10 meeting begins at 9 a.m. in the east wing of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, 1855 Main St., Santa Monica. Visit coastal.ca.gov/mtgcurr.html for agenda materials.