Activists and public officials are at loggerheads over the cutting of 650 trees in Oxford Basin Lagoon
By Joe Piasecki
Where Los Angeles County officials see progress toward restoring native flora and fauna to Marina del Rey’s Oxford Basin Lagoon, a small but vocal group of environmental activists sees only destruction: a wasteland punctuated by dead stumps.
In the span of a month, county workers cut down nearly all the trees — about 650 of them — in the 10-acre open space area and flood control retention basin between Washington Boulevard and Admiralty Way.
The plan is, after dredging some 10,000 cubic yards of polluted sediment clogging up the flood control works, to repopulate the area next year with 745 native trees and 45,000 native or drought-tolerant plants. With the addition of a perimeter walking path and wildlife observation areas, the $12-million project is designed to be a win-win-win for water management, recreational visitors and coastal wildlife alike.
“We want an amenity for the community and the environment,” Los Angeles County Department of Public Works Deputy Director Gary Hildebrand said. “All of the biologists from the different agencies involved reviewed this and concurred with the concept of removing the existing vegetation and replacing it with native vegetation.”
But critics of the project say wildlife has nowhere to go in the interim and it will take many years to replace the height and canopy coverage of the trees that have been cut down.
Some of the 31 eucalyptus trees within Oxford Basin Lagoon stood upwards of 80 feet. The largest of the incoming native trees —including 18 coast live oak, 11 cottonwood, plus laurel and sycamore — will be about 12 feet tall at planting but grow as high as 80 feet, said public works spokesman Kerjon Lee.
On Jan. 15 about a dozen protesters gathered on the sidewalk along Admiralty Way in a last-ditch effort to save what were the last two large eucalyptus trees, the group standing underneath the trees to prevent workers from cutting at branches. Sheriff’s deputies eventually cleared the area and the trees came down just before sunset.
“What’s going on here is a travesty. It’s an environmental crime,” said activist Eriyah Flynn. “They’ve totally denuded the entire area, so there’s nothing for these birds for many months.”
Patricia McPherson, president of the nonprofit Grassroots Coalition that emerged during the battle to save the Ballona Wetlands, rattles off a number of species spotted during that day or during several earlier demonstrations: egrets, an osprey, a red-tailed hawk, a Cooper’s hawk and numerous Monarch butterflies.
“This was a bird sanctuary. These are legacy trees. It’s pure vindictiveness at this point,” McPherson said.
Gradually removing the existing trees was deemed unfeasible due to dredging work and infrastructure upgrades to better filter storm water, increase dissolved oxygen and improve tidal exchange with Marina del Rey harbor, according to county documents.
Public works officials also say they scheduled the tree removal — announced in 2013 and approved by the California Coastal Commission and other agencies last year — to avoid the January through September bird-nesting season and that a more gradual removal process would have had a greater impact on wildlife.
Kathy Knight, conservation chair of the Sierra Club’s Airport Marina Group, sees evidence of immediate harm in photographs of an osprey perched on a now-gone tree and a cluster of butterflies clinging to a branch in the lagoon late last year.
A Nov. 19 biological field survey found no active nests within 500 feet of the lagoon, renovation project manager James Kearns told Coastal Commission members on Jan. 9.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, who represents Marina del Rey, also isn’t buying into complaints.
“It’s disappointing that, at the 11th hour, a small group of people is being misleading about a project that will actually increase the number of trees and provide new opportunities for recreation in the area,” Knabe wrote in a statement to The Argonaut. “Oxford Basin is a project that has been in the works and extensively reviewed for over five years. … We have designed a space that will improve water quality but also add walking trails and create new habitat for native species. “
A marshland converted into a farm and then a dump in the early 1900s, Oxford Basin Lagoon became a flood control area in 1959 and was designated a bird sanctuary by county supervisors in 1963. But according to public works documents, the lagoon’s already limited biodiversity and habitat value degraded as it became a dumping ground for unwanted pets in the 1970s and 1980s and the health of the trees declined further over the past 25 years.
Hildebrand acknowledged that some birds may have been using the area, “but it wasn’t the best habitat” for them to thrive, he said.
A 2010 county entomology report did not find sustainable food sources for Monarch butterflies in the lagoon, but the renovation will include more than 200 caterpillar-feeding milkweed plants, according to county documents.
Hildebrand and Lee point to recent county flood control projects that have been celebrated for embracing environmental stewardship alongside technical refurbishment: the Dominguez Gap Wetlands restoration in Long Beach, the refurbishment of Tujunga Wash Greenway in Valley Glen, and the Los Angeles Riverwalk project in Studio City.
“There’s a similar approach to Oxford Basin,” Hildebrand said. “There’ll be greater benefits to wildlife with the native vegetation.”