The facts just didn’t add up for those who fought to save an invasive plant species

By Katherine Pease

Volunteers remove non-native iceplant from dune habitat in the Ballona Wetlands Photo courtesy of Friends of the Ballona Wetlands

Volunteers remove non-native iceplant from dune habitat in the Ballona Wetlands
Photo courtesy of Friends of the Ballona Wetlands

The author is a staff scientist for Heal the Bay. She is responding to concerns raised in the March 10 issue of The Argonaut by the executive director of the Ballona Institute.

The California Coastal Commission made the right decision on March 10 to support the removal of invasive iceplant from three acres of the always contentious Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve.

Iceplant, a green succulent plant found flanking our freeways, is well-known to many Angelenos. It’s also highly invasive and problematic, now that it’s taken over significant areas of coastal habitat and dunes in California. Iceplant crowds out native plants, creating a monoculture that provides low-value habitat and reduces biodiversity in plants and animals.

The California Department of Fish & Wildlife and The Bay Foundation created the plan to place tarps over the iceplant to kill it through solarization. Solarization is a tried-and-true method to remove iceplant in a non-invasive way, and any wildlife would easily be able to escape from underneath the tarps because ample space is left between the garden staples used to anchor the tarps down.

Heal the Bay supports this iceplant removal project, which will help to restore ecological function to the degraded wetlands. The benefits that wetlands provide — such as wildlife habitat, water purification, buffering against flooding and recreation — can only be achieved when wetlands are healthy and functioning.

According to a 2014 report by The Bay Foundation, more than half of the Ballona Wetlands has been taken over by non-native invasive plants such as mustard and iceplant, creating habitats with reduced ecological, social and economic value. To restore function, projects like the removal of iceplant need to occur, along with larger-scale restoration efforts that are planned. Restored wetlands show marked signs of success, such as increased biodiversity, carbon sequestration, improved water circulation and improved water quality.

Last year, Heal the Bay joined forces with our partners at Friends of Ballona Wetlands, the Surfrider Foundation and Los Angeles Waterkeeper to craft the Nine Principles of Wetland Restoration, which outline practices of successful scientifically-based wetland restoration projects. A total of 13 respected environmental groups signed on in support of these principles.

The proposed iceplant removal project follows the principles of wetland restoration because it is based in scientific evidence, native plants and wildlife will be safeguarded, other alternatives were examined, and monitoring the site response to the restoration activities will occur.

Despite numerous scientific studies showing that the Ballona Wetlands are highly degraded and continue to deteriorate, the project faced opposition led by the Ballona Institute. Sitting in the hearing, I could not believe that an argument was being made to preserve the invasive iceplant. I felt like I was in an alternate reality where up was down, native plants were bad, and iceplant was good.

Listening to the opponents’ testimony, I surmised that their evidence was not based in science as I understand it. Their arguments focused on beliefs that iceplant provides important habitat for numerous native species and that animals — the Pacific chorus frog in particular — would be killed by the plastic tarps.

Opponents displayed photographs as “evidence” that many native animals depend on the iceplant as habitat. First, photographs are not scientific evidence, and there was no further evidence showing that native species rely solely on this habitat or really depend on it. Many species are adaptable and will use a habitat that is less than ideal, but this doesn’t mean that they need it or that some other habitat with native plants and animals wouldn’t be better.

However, opponents touted the Pacific chorus frog as a species that depends on the iceplant habitat and would be “endangered” by the removal of iceplant. I studied this species of frog for my doctoral dissertation at UCLA. As I said in public testimony, I have a great fondness for this frog, but I also am not worried about them and they are not a species of conservation concern. They are widespread and highly adaptable; among our local native amphibians, they are the most resilient to human disturbance. That doesn’t mean that we should be careless with them, but the proposed iceplant removal project takes care to protect wildlife while tarping — and these frogs move around easily, use a wide variety of habitats and do not rely on iceplant habitat in any way.

The opponents of the project stated a belief in the principle of “first do no harm.” Strangely enough, I agree with them on that point, but our conclusions differ: By doing nothing, we are doing harm.

The Ballona Wetlands have such great potential but desperately need restoration, whether it is in the removal of invasive iceplant, reconnecting the creek to the wetlands, or removing layers of fill.

Sometimes you need to act — smartly and with care — to protect something valuable. Letting nature take its course isn’t wise when manmade impacts are the very thing changing the course of events in our few remaining wetlands.