L.A.’s wild side

 

In mid-April, one of Southern California’s most reclusive celebrities found himself, quite literally, in a very tight spot. P-22, a mountain lion that lives in Griffith Park — 4,000 acres of green space in the heart of Los Angeles — was discovered in the crawlspace of a home in a hip neighborhood flanking the park. Television cameras swarmed, and wildlife officials tried to spook the lion out, chucking tennis balls at him to no avail. P-22’s fans worried: Had the big cat finally gotten too close for comfort? Would he be shot?

Remarkably, he wasn’t. Wildlife officials stowed their tennis balls and evicted the media, establishing a quiet perimeter around the house. By morning, P-22 had slipped away to the relative safety of Griffith Park.

Ever since P-22 left the Santa Monica Mountains in 2012, crossing two notoriously congested freeways to take up residence in the city, he’s awakened Angelenos’ wonder at the wildness that persists here amid the crush of concrete and rush of traffic. His presence has given traction to efforts to build wildlife bridges over highways to connect the last remnants of habitat for the few remaining lions. And he has helped shape an emerging environmental ethos — one that seeks to reconcile L.A.’s built environment and human inhabitants with the wild landscape they’ve consumed.

That ethos also sprang from the long-running efforts to revitalize the concrete-lined Los Angeles River and protect the Ballona Wetlands State Ecological Reserve, the last patch of coastal wetlands in the area and the subject of this issue’s cover story by Contributing Editor Judith Lewis Mernit.

Decades ago, environmentalists fought developers to save the wetlands — and fought one another over how much acreage should be saved. Now, with the state trying to finalize a restoration plan, the debate over Ballona is as fraught, impassioned and divisive as ever. How much bulldozing and replanting — if any — is necessary to “heal” the landscape? Should people be banned for the sake of the wetlands’ species, or do we deserve access to this tiny urban wilderness? Who, and what, is this restoration really for?

Such intense debate over a mere 600 acres in a sprawling city might seem provincial. Increasingly, however, ecologists argue that re-making our farms, city parks, front yards and roadsides into hospitable habitat for native plants and wildlife is crucial to preserving global biodiversity.

For cities to become ecological refuges, we have to evolve, too — rethinking the goals of environmentalism and adjusting the boundaries we draw between human and wild. It’s work rife with ambiguity, but also hope. Consider P-22’s pickle in the crawlspace: “Even the homeowners were super chill,” Beth Pratt of the National Wildlife Federation told Lewis Mernit after the incident. “Everyone wanted the cat to be safe. He is L.A.’s lion!”