The Ballona Wetlands south of Marina del Rey are believed to have occupied more than 2,000 acres of land at one time in their history.

Today more than 600 acres remain of the ecological reserve, which is home to a variety of wildlife species, such as birds, fish and other aquatic animals.

A vast majority of the wetlands, approximately 540 acres, is now owned by the California Department of Fish and Game, with the remainder owned by the State Lands Commission.

Environmentalists who have been involved in various aspects of the wetlands say the preservation of the hundreds of acres under state ownership can be traced to efforts over the last century, including a number of major actions in the last 25 years. It has been five years since the now more than 600-acre land was preserved after the state acquired the property from the owners through a partnership with the Trust for Public Land.

A number of local environmentalists say they are marking the fifth anniversary of that monumental acquisition with a series of events over the next year, starting with a recognition of the various state officials and journalists who contributed to the achievement.

“It’s important to express the gratitude we all feel for the efforts of the people and for the land itself,” said Marcia Hanscom, co-director of the Ballona Institute in Playa del Rey. “We want to express gratitude for this real gift we have in this community.”

The Ballona Institute, which serves as a center for research, restoration and advocacy of the wetlands, is holding “Celebrate Ballona,” described as a gala event honoring the efforts of local and state elected officials, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, former State Controller Kathleen Connell, former State Controller Steve Westly and former State Senator Tom Hayden.

The gala is scheduled Tuesday, December 2nd, at The Ritz-Carlton hotel, 4375 Admiralty Way in Marina del Rey. All proceeds from Celebrate Ballona will go toward defraying legal costs incurred during the campaign for the wetlands’ acquisition, as well as toward ongoing stewardship, educational and advocacy programs related to the Ballona ecosystem.

As part of the anniversary event, journalists who covered the wetland protection efforts for various local and national news agencies are being honored, including J. William Gibson, Mary Moore, Patt Morrison, Robert Scheer, Jill Stewart, David Helvarg, Nick Madigan and Jeff Stockwell. In covering their stories, the journalists displayed “journalistic courage,” as they covered controversial issues regarding the Playa Vista development and wrote about high-profile companies such as Dreamworks SKG, which had planned to build studios on the property.

“The journalists stuck their necks out to cover a story that was politically challenging and we felt it was important to honor them for that,” Hanscom said.

Ballona Institute co-director and ecologist Robert “Roy” van de Hoek added, “We’re very appreciative of all the journalists who helped write about (the acquisition effort) and bring attention to it. We’re also appreciative of the politicians who took a stand and voted a certain way.”

Ballona Institute representatives said the acquisition of the land was a significant achievement because it helped ensure the ecological integrity of the wetlands, provided citizen oversight and allowed for future acquisitions of surrounding parklands. Hanscom said the institute decided to organize the gala because no event has been held to officially mark the preservation.

“It’s a huge accomplishment,” Hanscom said of the acquisition. “When was the last time 600 acres of land was saved anywhere in L.A.?”

Among the other officials who are scheduled to attend the gala December 2nd are Trust for Public Land founder Huey Johnson, State Controller John Chiang; State Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, Assemblyman Ted Lieu and Anthony Morales, tribal chair of the Gabrielino/Tongva Council of San Gabriel.

Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who will serve as master of ceremonies, said the event is unique because it merges journalists and elected officials to recognize their efforts.

“It is honoring political leaders as well as journalists, and to tie the two together is a very positive thing,” Rosendahl said. “This is a celebration and appreciation of how politicians and journalists can work together on a significant environmental issue.”

Ballona Institute representatives say they chose to honor elected officials whose contributions played a key role in allowing the state to acquire the 600 acres. For example, as Assembly speaker at the time, Villaraigosa proposed legislation that led to Proposition 12, which provided $25 million for the acquisition. As a state senator, Bowen supported preserving the largest amount possible of wetlands and authored legislation that would help fund the acquisition package, the Ballona Institute noted.

Through their elected positions, the state representatives being honored each supported the concerns of the community, which had fought for years to save the land from development, van de Hoek said. Former Gov. Gray Davis, who also played a key part in the process according to local environmentalists, will be recognized at an event next year.

“It’s really nice when politicians hear the citizens and listen to their requests,” van de Hoek said. “There’s a greater access to the wetlands now that it’s not private.”

Ruth Lansford of Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, another community group that has been active in acquiring the land, said it’s important to commemorate the anniversary of saving 600 acres. The Friends of Ballona had previously filed lawsuits that led to the acquisition of 300 acres, said Lansford, who also acknowledged the efforts of officials such as former Gov. Davis.

“It’s great to honor the people who were involved,” Lansford said.

Other events planned next year to mark the anniversary include an artistic performance honoring the contributions of artists and writers, as well as a Family Picnic honoring various community activists and other elected officials who were involved.