Plans for restoring the Ballona Wetlands are delayed once again with loss of funding for nature center

By Gary Walker

State officials now say it could be the middle of  next year before they release their Ballona Wetlands restoration plans Photo by Lisa Fimiani

State officials now say it could be the middle of
next year before they release their Ballona Wetlands restoration plans
Photo by Lisa Fimiani

How last Tuesday’s announcement that the Annenberg Foundation has discontinued its campaign to build a $50-million urban ecology center in the Ballona Wetlands will impact broader restoration plans for the 600-acre ecological reserve remains somewhat uncertain, according to state officials.

Completion of an environmental analysis considering restoration strategies has been delayed multiple times over the past four years and has now been pushed back to spring or summer of next year, said Jordan Traverso, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Right now, it’s hard to tell what effect [the Annenberg decision] will have, outside of the fact that there’s not funding for the proposed center,” Traverso said. “There’s so much that’s already gone into this restoration and so many other partners involved that the [environmental impact report]  will move forward, but what that looks like I don’t know.”

Fish and Wildlife and the state Coastal Conservancy are the lead agencies in the Ballona Wetlands restoration initiative, which also includes the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission and the nonprofit The Bay Foundation. In 2004, The Bay Foundation formed a project management team to initiate restoration planning and the commission began compiling historical and biological studies in 2009.

Possible strategies for restoring the wetlands won’t be known until the environmental report is filed.

“At this point, I don’t know if we’re going to strip the alternatives that include the interpretive center out of the EIR or leave them in there in the event there’s still a possibility of an interpretive center sometime in the future,” Traverso said. “That said, all of the partners remain interested in seeing the reserve become a thriving, functioning wetlands again.”

Several local environmental organizations had openly denounced Annenberg’s plan for a 46,000-square-foot education and animal care center in the wetlands near the Culver-Marina Little League baseball fields south of Culver Boulevard and east of Lincoln Boulevard. Despite architectural renderings of strategies to blend the center with its wetland surroundings, the groups flat out opposed building on limited wetland space as well as the inclusion of a domestic animal care program at the center.

“I’m very happy to hear that Annenberg has pulled out. I’m happy that the area will not be a gray-scape with a parking lot and a building and will remain a green-scape,” said Roy van de Hoek, a biologist and president of the Playa del Rey-based Ballona Institute.

Walter Lamb, president of the Ballona Land Trust, feels including the proposed center within the wetlands restoration plan was an unwise decision by state officials.

“The fact that this has been part of the CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] process has come at tremendous cost,” said Lamb, who says additional time spent by state employees analyzing Annenberg’s proposal cost taxpayers money. “It’s a victory, but we’re not patting ourselves on the back.”

Lamb’s organization sued Fish and Wildlife in April, claiming that state wildlife officials had not disclosed documents that the land trust had requested under the state Public Records Act.

Councilman Mike Bonin said he was pleased to learn that Annenberg had taken its offer to build the center off the table.

“I didn’t think that it was appropriate for the area. One of my chief concerns is that there is still an open question about how we restore the wetlands and that debate is nowhere near completion,” Bonin said. “Building the center there presupposed an intensity of use that I don’t think there was a consensus about yet.”

The group Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, led by David Kay, supports a public education facility in the wetlands, whether Annenberg pays for it or not.

“The Friends have always advocated for well-regulated public access to the reserve, including a visitor center within the reserve area or at the nearby Ballona Discovery Park,” reads a statement by the group.

Traverso said state Department of Fish and Wildlife officials hope the restoration will include opportunities for learning about how the wetlands function alongside a metropolis.

“We still have hope that the reserve will eventually be a place where people, including children who might otherwise not have access to such a natural place in such urban surroundings, can learn about wetlands habitat and how they are a part of nature,” she said. “We hope that will lead to the next generation of environmental stewards.”