Native species get a helping hand from restoration efforts in the LAX Dunes

By Gary Walker

Rod Abbott, watershed programs coordinator for The Bay Foundation, spotted this bright yellow fiery skipper butterfly and California burrowing owl in the LAX Dunes restoration area earlier this year

Standing amid the sand and brush on the north end of the LAX Dunes, it’s strange to think there once was a neighborhood here — and very hard to believe that a few decades ago this nature preserve was slated to become a golf resort.

The LAX Dunes stretch 302 acres between Vista Del Mar and Pershing Drive from the Playa del Rey bluffs to El Segundo, including the 203-acre El Segundo Blue Butterfly Preserve in the southern portion and a six-acre active restoration area at the northwestern tip.

In this smaller space, five years of painstaking scientific work and grueling physical labor have facilitated the return of native fauna such as Blainville’s horned lizard (featured on this week’s cover), the snakelike California legless lizard and the burrowing owl — each listed by the California wildlife officials as a species of special concern — and native flora like the bright yellow beach evening primrose and light green beach bur.

Back in 1986, a former member of the airport’s environmental management team said he was “99% certain that there are no significant biological life forms on the dunes,” The Argonaut reported that year. At the time, LAX officials had been planning to turn the dunes into a 178-acre golf course and 24-acre sports recreation area, with only 80 acres set aside for the endangered El Segundo blues, plus a 12-acre dune preserve and seven acres of parkland. The California Coastal Commission rejected that plan citing a lack of information about plant and animal life, according to our archives.

Now LAX environmental planners and biologists with local water quality and habitat conservation nonprofit The Bay Foundation estimate as many as 900 native plants, insects and animals live within the fenced-off dunes.

“Certainly there are dozens of native plant species and birds, and more invertebrates than I can count,” said restoration biologist Karina Johnston, director of watershed programs for The Bay Foundation.

Those rare horned lizards are being spotted with greater frequency lately, a good sign for the area’s biodiversity. For students and community volunteers removing non-native plants from the dunes and seeding native plants in their wake, the lizards have become reptilian celebrities.

“They are a favorite sighting by our interns and volunteers,” Johnston said with a smile.

This 1949 aerial photo looking southward from Del Rey Lagoon and a largely undeveloped lower Playa del Rey shows the sprawling Surfridge neighborhood on what is now the LAX Dunes preserve

Given that the dunes exist directly under the LAX flight path, border residential areas and abut heavily trafficked Vista Del Mar, the fact that native species appear to be thriving is nothing short of amazing to biologists.

“It’s so rare that everything that lives there has a very restricted space — in the middle of urbanized Los Angeles — but is doing very well,” Johnston said.

Another feat of nature to consider is that it’s been more than a century since the LAX Dunes could be considered a pristine coastal dune habitat.

In the 1800s the area was part of Rancho Sausal Redondo, a Mexican land grant that spanned from contemporary Playa del Rey to Redondo Beach — land that was commonly used for sheep and cattle grazing, said Playa del Rey historian Tom McMahon.

In the 1920s, back when Playa del Rey was called Palisades del Rey, the Dickinson & Gillespie Co. graded at least 50 acres on the north end of the dunes, paved roads and parceled the land for a ritzy suburban development they called Surfridge, where Hollywood heavyweights like Cecil B. DeMille took up residence in custom-built beach-view homes.

Back then, planes taking off from little Mines Field were an occasional spectacle. By the 1950s, the constant roar of passenger jets constantly coming and going from what had become Los Angeles International Airport turned a quiet seaside enclave into a constant assault on the ears. The city invoked eminent domain to buy up Surfridge and bulldoze it, leaving a ghostly landscape of home foundation outlines and cracked roads to nowhere partially visible to passersby along Vista Del Mar.

During a recent visit to the active restoration site, Rod Abbott, watershed programs coordinator for The Bay Foundation, pointed off into the distance toward what appeared to be the remains of a concrete porch.

“Seeing things like this always reminds us that there used to be a neighborhood here,” Abbott said.

Revitalization of the butterfly preserve at the south end of the dunes began in the early 1990s, but the northern portion largely sat idle until LAX and The Bay Foundation kicked off restoration work in June 2013. This summer The Bay Foundation released a five-year scientific monitoring analysis detailing restoration activities and progress within the six-acre active restoration area.

Joined at times by hundreds of eager volunteers from Friends of the Dunes and LAWA engineers, scientists tore apart and removed six paved streets as well as leftover curbs, gutters, sidewalks, retaining walls and building foundations, erasing what had become paper streets from the map altogether.

While continuing to remove non-native invasive species — about 2,500 garbage bags of vegetation over a span of more than 100 cleanup outings, according to the report — biologists, student interns and community volunteers reseeded target restoration areas with native dune and coastal prairie flora.

“Environmental stewardship is a priority at LAX, and we will continue to restore and protect our local habitats,” Samantha Bricker, deputy executive director of LAX’s environmental programs group, said of an area once declared to be barren of native animal and plant species.

The ongoing success of the six-acre restoration begs the question of expanding these techniques to another 48 acres of the former Surfridge development north of the butterfly preserve.

The Bay Foundation proposes initial focus on patches of the dunes that are most prone to invasive species growth and monitoring vegetation cover throughout the ghost town expanse. This summer’s ecological monitoring and restoration report promises more detailed recommendations in November.

So far, LAX officials like what they see.

“There’s always a sense of jubilation to see [native species] as part of the functioning environment again. We want to keep doing this in a very responsible and environmentally sustainable way,” said Carolyn Lin of LAX’s Environmental Programs Group, who has worked extensively in the dune sanctuary.

Meanwhile, student interns from Loyola Marymount University’s new Coastal Research Institute, an academic partnership between the college and The Bay Foundation, promises to be a force multi-
plier for accelerating restoration work.

LMU student interns have been actively participating in dune restoration activities this year, trading lab research for hands-on science that’s also speeding progress in the dunes.

“A lot of people with my major spend a lot of time in the lab. That’s good, but it’s not the same as being out here learning everything,” said LMU junior Hannah Lyford, a biology major.

“It’s really cool to look back into the past and see what can happen [with restoration],” LMU graduate student Milo Yukimodo said of his role in the effort.

Johnston says it’s personally rewarding to see the return of native plants and animals after so many years of displacement by human development.

“It’s inspiring to know that these kinds of habitats can exist,” she said. “This restoration is allowing for a functional dune system to exist. I almost never take it for granted because there are constantly new challenges and new lessons to be learned.”

As part of statewide Coastal Cleanup Day events, The Bay Foundation is seeking community volunteers to assist with the removal of ice plant, Russian thistle and other invasive plant species from 8:15 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Sept. 15. It’s just about your only way in to experience the LAX Dunes for yourself. RSVP to (310) 417-3962 or at

Managing Editor Joe Piasecki contributed to this story.