By Marcia Hanscom
Most people in Los Angeles remember the huge public outcry in December, 2012, when the US Army Corps of Engineers decided to bulldoze a portion of the Sepulveda Wildlife Reserve in order to “restore” it. LA City Councilmembers expressed outrage, as did CA Senator Fran Pavley; and the LA Regional Water Quality Control Board brought out its regulatory knives.
December seems to be a good time for agency bureaucrats to carry out such unpopular plans. This time, in 2014, it was the Los Angeles County Dept. of Public Works, and this time it was Oxford Lagoon, a beloved bird sanctuary, appreciated by neighboring Venetians walking or cycling by on the Marvin Braude bikepath.
Oxford Lagoon was one of the few natural features remaining when more than ½ of the historical Ballona Wetlands was dug up in order to build Marina del Rey. Oxford was designated by the LA County Supervisors in 1963 as a “Bird Conservation Area,” in an era before environmental laws required mitigation and as a nod to local Audubon groups that decried the destruction of the Ballona bird haven. This designation has never been rescinded, even though Public Works bureaucrats insist on calling it a “basin” – looking at every landscape feature in L.A. for its utilitarian, engineering function, and ignoring any natural or ecological values.
A few years ago, LA County Supervisor Don Knabe, in his quest to “polish the jewels” of private developments on our public lands of the marina, decided that the renewal of Oxford Lagoon was important. However, citizens, local democratic club leaders and environmental groups like Ballona Institute, Sierra Club, and Grassroots Coalition learned only in early December that this meant more than 650 trees would be chopped down and killed, and they were horrified.
Oxford Lagoon is a roosting and feeding site for numerous resident water birds, like the Black-crowned Night Heron, Snowy Egret and Great Egret and also for migratory and wintering birds, like the White-crowned Sparrow, Osprey and Belted Kingfisher. The lagoon is especially important as habitat for juvenile waterbirds as they explore safe shelter near their original nesting sites. Many of the trees slated for destruction have been important for these birds in terms of roosting and hunting for food.
Activists mobilized and, as a result of numerous phone calls and email messages to all five County Supervisors and newly elected representatives, CA Senator Ben Allen and Assemblymember Autumn Burke, local Democratic Club leader and new Marina City Club resident Kathryn Campbell, organized stakeholders to meet with Dept. of Public Works officials and Steve Napolitano, Knabe’s field deputy for the marina.
While the meetings did result in one Deputy Director of the agency agreeing to call the area Oxford Lagoon instead of Oxford Basin, not much else was accomplished in the two marathon meetings that activists were summoned to in Alhambra at the DPW headquarters.
One important fact learned in the meetings was that the contract for the largest part of the project has not yet been approved by the Board of Supervisors. This means that the treeless soils will be left bare, subject to erosion in the rainy season, and new plants for a theme-park, manicured fake restoration will be planted during the summer – which is the worst time to plant southern California-adapted native plants (if the Supervisors approved the contract).
In between the two meetings, about 50 trees were already clear-cut, yet the activists did their own due diligence in seeking professional recommendations from restoration ecologist, Dr. Margot Griswold and from biologist Robert “Roy” van de Hoek. An alternative phased-approach to restoration, which would mean that new trees would be planted while only a few were removed at a time, was rejected, ostensibly because of deadlines for project completion (March, 2016) and grant requirements. It became clear that the tree killing would continue with no relief in sight for the birds.
As of December 31, the LADPW’s scheduled date for completion of tree removal, most of the trees have been eliminated. Residents of the Marina Peninsula (represented by County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl) and other adjacent Venice neighborhoods (represented by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas) have expressed shock and disgust at witnessing this project moving forward, seemingly only with Don Knabe having a say in what would go on at this sensitive wetland ecosystem.
Robert van de Hoek, a wildlife biologist and restoration ecologist with the Ballona Institute, has been researching, monitoring and studying the Monarch Butterfly in Los Angeles and beyond, being particularly interested in the “assists” being given to this declining species from local residents growing Milkweed in Venice, Mar Vista, Playa del Rey, Westchester and Del Rey.
When Ballona naturalist Jonathan Coffin sent a photo of a couple of Monarchs roosting on Eucalyptus at Oxford Lagoon, van de Hoek rushed over and, began dedicated morning and late afternoon observation watches, as the butterflies would warm up from the sun, leave to find nectar in the area and then return to their roosts to rest together, where scientists think they congregate in order to keep warm during the cold winter nights. The California coast, being warmer than inland areas in the winter because of proximity to the ocean, is an important winter roosting area when tall, suitable trees are in areas shielded from high winds.
Van de Hoek counted enough butterflies each time to be able to verify to state wildlife officials that the Oxford Lagoon site is an important new winter roost site for this imperiled species. It was announced this month the US Interior Dept. is considering listing Monarchs on the federal endangered species list. Unfortunately, on December 29th, after numerous appeals were made to wildlife officials and county bureaucrats, the county contractors decided to chop down the two most important trees to the Monarch Butterfly. Activist Patricia McPherson, observing in the rain, said the sky lit up with orange wings when the largest of the two trees was felled.