Plastic covering at Ballona Wetlands remains heated topic

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Posted January 29, 2009 by garywalker in News - Features
A plastic tarpaulin on a piece of acreage in the Ballona Wetlands continues to draw outrage among a few local environmentalists, who last summer claimed that its placement there by a state agency would be more harmful than helpful to the habitat.

The black plastic covering, which is near the intersection of Nicholson Street and Culver Boulevard in Playa del Rey, became a source of controversy after local environmentalist Robert “Roy” van de Hoek complained to the California Coastal Commission that the tarp could be killing native plant and animal species.

The California Department of Fish and Game installed the tarp as part of a restoration program in the wetlands, said Rick Mayfield, ecological reserve manager for the Department of Fish and Game. The agency hopes to reintroduce the milk vetch, a native plant that was previously thought to be extinct, and remove ice plant, a non-native plant through a process called solarization.

Van de Hoek, co-director of the Playa del Rey-based Ballona Institute, says he has spoken with Mayfield recently about the tarp.

“He told me that it will be coming off soon,” van de Hoek told The Argonaut.

Mayfield confirmed that the restoration firm that was hired to conduct the fieldwork, Impact Sciences, an environmental company based in Camarillo, will likely remove the tarp by late February.

“Right now, they are looking at scheduling and what kind of work can be done when taking the weather into account,” he said. “Bids have gone out to a subcontractor for the work, and we hope that within the next few weeks the tarp can be removed.”

In an interview in August, Mayfield told The Argonaut that the restoration project has been ongoing for several months and involves extracting non-native vegetation such as ice plants. After the plants are cleared away, native vegetation would be replanted in the reserve.

Other local environmental organizations support the solarization program, and contend that it is a vital part of the restoration of the wetlands.

“Our board is very much in favor of [the solarization program], said Friends of Ballona Wetlands founder Ruth Lansford.

Van de Hoek, a biologist who leads tours of the wetlands and also conducts natural history tours for Los Angeles County, says the solarization project has killed frogs and lizards that live in the immediate area.

“The willow dock plant has also appeared to have grown around the edges of the tarp, but a lot of other plants have been killed,” added van de Hoek, who said his permit to enter the ecological reserve was revoked after a confrontation last year with Mayfield.

Mayfield says that the firm that was hired to conduct the solarization project has not noticed any destruction of native plants or animals caused by the restoration plan.

“It has been a success so far,” Mayfield asserted.

Dr. Edith Read, owner of the environmental services firm Edith Read and Associates, feels that the restoration plan by the Department of Fish and Game is well conceived.

“Solarization is a well established part of restoration,” she explained. “The other alternatives to restoring native plants are manual removal of the ice plant, which is very difficult to remove due to the weight of the plant, or herbicides.”

Herbicides are used to destroy unwanted plant life, such as weeds or bushes, or unproductive plants.

Lansford does not understand van de Hoek’s objections to the solarization plan with the tarp.

“I don’t know what the motivations are to those who are opposed to the restoration plan,” she said. “The idea that a small animal may be harmed there is an emotional response, not a scientific response.”

Van de Hoek said that his reasons are grounded in science and his years of studying the wetlands and its habitat. He believes that the plastic covering, which is approximately 100 by 60 feet, is smothering animals and plants in the covered area.

“Scientists are allowed to be emotional,” the Ballona Institute director countered. “I’m opposed to what they’re doing there because it’s an area that’s very sandy and the milk vetch needs to be in a location where there are no squirrels and weeds.”

Mayfield believes that much of the controversy surrounding the agency’s restoration efforts with the tarp stem from a general misunderstanding of how the process of solaraization works.

“There has been a lot of misinformation about the term solarization,” the reserve manager said. “We used the black plastic tarp instead of a clear plastic because black covering does not rely on intense high heat, like the clear plastic does.”

In fact, the black tarp can be helpful to certain wetland species, according to Mayfield.

“The covering that we have in place can actually benefit snakes and lizards, because it does not deprive them of sunlight,” he explained.

The tarp, in place now for almost six months, is no longer intact, for a variety of reasons.

“High winds, inclement weather and even vandalism have occurred at the site,” said Mayfield. “Most of the damage has been repaired, and at this point it’s not a priority to repair it any further because the project is expected to be finished soon.”

Lansford hopes that the project continues and the milk vetch is brought back to the Ballona Wetlands.

“We’re in desperate need of wetlands restoration,” she said. “It’s an exciting project, and any objection to it is emotional and non-scientific.”

Van de Hoek, who is also an advocate for wetland restoration and preservation, would like to see many plant and animal species return to Ballona. He would also like to see another agency oversee the restoration effort.

“The state Parks and Recreation Department would be a good agency to lead this project,” he suggested. “It has a 100-year history of protecting natural resources.”

Impact Sciences will continue to monitor the site, as well as Fish and Game, Mayfield said.