Natural open spaces are ours to lose when we fail to pay attention

By William Hicks

A Great Blue Heron convention in the Ballona Wetlands  Photo by Jonathan Coffin

A Great Blue Heron convention in the Ballona Wetlands
Photo by Jonathan Coffin

The Ballona Wetlands in Playa del Rey is the last remaining coastal wetland in Los Angeles.

The United States has lost about half of the wetlands areas that existed before European settlers arrived, an erosion of natural environment that’s even more pronounced close to home.

“More than 95% of Southern California’s wetlands have been lost to human development — the largest loss of any region in the nation,” states ballonarestoration.org, a website maintained by the groups working on the Ballona Wetlands Restoration Project.

When we lose wetlands, we lose such benefits as biodiversity, flood control and habitat for rare and endangered species.

Since 2001, the overall footprint of the Ballona (wetland and upland) has receded from 1,187 to 640 acres due to the development of the Playa Vista behemoth. Thanks to local efforts by groups such as the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands and the Ballona Institute, the wetlands along Culver Boulevard and west of Lincoln Boulevard have been saved — for now. As part of the initial development approvals for Playa Vista, the state bought the land in 2003 for $139 million and turned it into an ecological reserve.

But misguided impulses to build over wetlands didn’t stop there. Until late last year, the Annenberg Foundation had offered to contribute tens of millions of dollars to the state’s Ballona restoration efforts if only they’d be allowed to build a 46,000-square-foot nature education and animal care center — including cat and dog adoptions! — on supposedly protected land. To the relief of many, the foundation has since proposed a domestic animal care center in Playa Vista.

If the powers that be want to put anything in the wetlands, they should install webcams. I think we’re missing out by not having them, but you can check out some magnificent Ballona wildlife photographs taken by the talented Jonathan Coffin at flickr.com/photos/stonebird/sets/447673.

But even my own father, before he retired from LAX Operations, proposed expanding the airport by building a runway on the wetlands. Although this apple fell far from the tree on that particular idea, we both care about people and what is best for them.

Sometimes I wonder, however, how much our governing agencies care about what is best for us.

Because now there are plans to “renovate” the Ballona Wetlands. I am seeing a clear pattern —Malibu Lagoon, Oxford Lagoon, Parcel 9U (the last remaining undeveloped land in Marina del Rey, 1.3 acres of which were given a wetland jurisdictional determination by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2001), and now the mother of all wetlands in Los Angeles.

“Who says we need to ‘do something’ about what is there at Ballona, except maintenance, enforcement of laws and opening up a trail or two for the public?” says Ballona Institute Executive Director Marcia Hanscom.

These open lands are where the wild things are. They are not just empty spaces for someone to get their hands on and develop or renovate, they are not places to rescue pets (even though I love pets), or build a runway (sorry, Dad). No, they are not get-lands, pet-lands, or jet-lands — they are wetlands!

We have many government agencies and an alphabet soup of laws such as the CCC, EPA, NEPA, CEQA and ESHA to protect the environment, but they don’t mean a hill of beans unless they actually protect.

The government simply reflects the involvement of the people … or lack of it. Government grows where the private sector falls short — nature abhors a vacuum. So why are we surprised when government grows because people and organizations aren’t taking care of the environment?

Yet we shouldn’t be surprised when these same government agencies are missing in action, when voters are so regularly MIA at the polls. Can we blame governments for thinking that people don’t care because they don’t vote, send letters, sign petitions, lobby or attend public meetings?

I believe that We the People exist as an unofficial Oversight Branch of government. A “government of the people, by the people, for the people” requires the people’s constant involvement. If we don’t read, stay informed, talk it up and show up, then one day we’ll ask “what happened?” after the damage is done. We’ll point fingers and blame “the people in charge,” but we’re the people, we’re in charge, we make things happen. Or we don’t.

Speaking of showing up, I would like to acknowledge those who on July 22 showed up at the Regional Planning Commission meeting downtown regarding a proposal to construct a 288-room hotel in Marina del Rey at Parcel 9U, located at Via Marina and Tahiti Way.

When I asked Anita Gutierrez of Regional Planning how they can build a hotel in the residential section of Marina del Rey, she told me that building rights had long ago been “grandfathered in.”

Loopholes, large contracts, and make-work projects — Is this how things work now? Perhaps this is how things have always worked … or rather not worked.

Regardless, it’s our job to be involved in the process. The reality is we have to regulate the regulators, because they work for us. If you can’t attend public meetings, then send letters about your concerns.

Come on, my mother — at 88 years old — still sends letters!

To quote Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Now imagine what a large group of thoughtful, committed citizens can do.

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