A black plastic tarpaulin is quickly becoming the touchstone of a larger disagreement between a Playa del Rey environmental organization and officials of the California Department of Fish and Game over a stretch of acreage in the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve.

The tarp, which was placed over an area in a Playa del Rey reserve as part of a state sponsored-plant restoration project, has evoked the ire of environmental groups and resulted in the planned departure of one local biologist from a Playa del Rey environmental organization.

Robert “Roy” van de Hoek, co-founder of the Ballona Institute, resigned at the end of last month after the organization’s permits to lead nature tours in the wetlands were revoked by state Fish and Game representatives. Van de Hoek claims that the action was taken because he challenged the state’s decision to install the plastic tarpaulin over a site that is the habitat of many of the fragile ecosystem’s inhabitants.

David Sanders, director of operations of the International Humanities Center, an organization that works with other groups on environmental and ecological causes, said on August 5th that his organization refused van de Hoek’s resignation.

“We are in complete support of Roy and Ballona Institute and the wonderful work that they do in the Ballona Wetlands,” Sanders said. “The protection of native species and habitat is very important.”

Representatives from the Department of Fish and Game deny that the move was retaliatory, alleging that van de Hoek was warned several times that he could not enter an area unauthorized.

“He violated the provisions of his access letter,” explained Rick Mayfield, ecological reserve manager for the Department of Fish and Game. “He was trespassing in areas where he had no authorization.”

Van de Hoek said that he did not trespass, and until recently there were no signs indicating that the area was restricted.

“I don’t need a sign to tell me that I can’t go into the reserve,” said van de Hoek, who has been working around Ballona Creek for years.

According to state Fish and Game authorities, the restoration project has been ongoing for several months and involves extracting non-native vegetation such as iceberg plants. After the plants are cleared away, native vegetation will be replanted in the reserve.

“The tarp was placed there for solarization,” Mayfield said. “This particular plant can be very difficult to remove because of its weight.”

In order to engage in restoration endeavors in the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve, a permit from the California Coastal Commission is required. Under certain conditions a waiver can be granted and the project that van de Hoek is challenging has such a waiver.

“The waiver can be cancelled immediately if activity other than ice plant removal is being done,” said the Ballona Institute’s co-founder.

Van de Hoek has written to the coastal commission claiming that the waiver attached to the restoration project should be revoked. In an e-mail to the project’s enforcement manager, Andrew Willis, van de Hoek inquired about the necessity for placing the plastic tarp in an area which he says is the habitat of several native wetland species, including butterflies, lizards, mice and several beetles, in addition to native vegetation.

“Under that tarp, it is very much like a wildfire,” van de Hoek claims. “There will be a lot of deaths of wildlife under that tarp.”

Willis replied, “The proposal indicates ice plant will be removed from the restoration area through manual removal and solarization, so I imagine the entire restoration area won’t be tarped and it seems manual removal would avoid any natives.”

Mayfield said that surveys were taken of native species of the marsh prior to putting the tarp down and that the scientists from Impact Sciences, the firm hired to conduct the surveys and assist in the restoration project, found no native species that van de Hoek referenced.

“The restoration of the area will include a reintroduction of native plants and species,” said Mayfield. “The area was documented before we laid the tarp and no native species were found.”

In addition, Mayfield said the area that is covered is only a small part of the restoration site.

“The tarp is only in the ice plant community,” the reserve manager said. “It is a very small area that is is being used.”

A Ballona Wetlands naturalist, Jonathan Coffin, says that he has seen many of the species that van de Hoek says are present in the restoration area.

“In a brutish and destructive way, the resource agency that is in charge of protecting the reserve resources allows developer scientists to use an inappropriate method to remove ice plant and in the process they are also smothering and cooking native wetland flora and fauna that also live here,” Coffin asserted.

Van de Hoek said prior to the time that the tarp was put down, he and Mayfield, who has been supervising the project since January, had a cordial relationship.

“I thought that we had a good relationship,” van de Hoek said. “Rick asked me to be a volunteer for Fish and Game and even asked me for my advice on what to look out for in the marsh. I felt confident that he might take my information and perhaps not go with the tarp.”

According to Mayfield, after discovering that the tarp had been placed in the restoration area, van de Hoek became enraged.

“He was very confrontational, hostile and threatening,” Mayfield said.

Marcia Hanscom, co-founder with van de Hoek of the Ballona Institute, plans to travel Thursday, August 7th, to Oceanside to lobby the Coastal Commission to rescind the waiver that it granted for the restoration project.

Mayfield says that when the restoration project is completed, the reserve will be healthier and the wetlands will have a better balance.

“This project will bring about a much higher diversity of native plants,” he predicted. “And we are certainly sensitive to everything that has been discussed about the reserve.”

Van de Hoek is hopeful that the commission will void the waiver after listening to the documentation that he and others have compiled.

“The best outcome would be to remove the tarp from the area,” he said. “It’s still not too late to save some of the most resilient plants and animals.”

Al Padilla, an analyst for the California Coastal Commission who is affiliated with the Playa del Rey restoration project, had not returned phone calls before The Argonaut went to press.