The Los Angeles wetland wars

Environmentalists saved a wetland from developers a decade ago. Now they’re trying to save it from each other.

Not too long ago, Roy van de Hoek was a one-man guerrilla restoration force, a warrior for native species wherever he went. In the 1990s, two years after leaving his job as a Bureau of Land Management biologist on Central California's Carrizo Plain, he began "girdling" Australian eucalyptus trees on the protected landscape, stripping the trees of their bark until they slowly starved to death. For this and other subversive activities in defense of wild nature, he was convicted of a misdemeanor, and Mother Jones magazine named him June 1997's "Hellraiser of the Month."


Van de Hoek last risked arrest for native plant life in 2006, when he began pulling alien vegetation from the 600-acre Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve on the Southern California coast, near his home. The City of Los Angeles charged him with vandalism, but later absolved him on the condition that van de Hoek, a gifted interpreter of nature, provide them with scientific reports and lead wetland tours.

These days, at 58, van de Hoek is an environmental educator with Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation and a reformed man. One afternoon, as I stood with him and his fiancée, environmental activist Marcia Hanscom, counting monarchs in a eucalyptus grove on the southern fringe of the Ballona Reserve, he told me the story of his conversion. How, after a squabble with a neighbor over his girdling of a local ficus tree, he noticed native waders, like night herons and egrets, roosting in the ficus trees. How he recognized that ice plant, a South African succulent, shelters native voles and frogs. How he started reading Robert Michael Pyle.

Pyle traveled more than 9,000 miles following the monarch migration across the West for his 1999 book, Chasing Monarchs. Van de Hoek felt a deep kinship with him. “The way he carries books in his car about natural history, the way he drops everything to chase a butterfly,” van de Hoek says. “I wanted to call him up!” Monarchs, Pyle observed, roost in eucalyptus in the absence of their native conifers. He was angry that state land managers were cutting the “eucs” down. “He was angry at me,” van de Hoek said, pressing binoculars to his face to count the fluttering masses above our heads, clinging there like rust-colored petals.

Slowly, van de Hoek began to see certain urban ecosystems, like the Ballona Wetlands, not as places in need of a heavy-handed fix, but as places in the process of evolving — not back to what they were before humans arrived, but into something just as wild, beautiful and ecologically significant.

A great blue heron and great egrets in a tidal channel in the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve, Playa del Rey, California.
Jonathan Coffin/Stonebird, CC via Flickr

Van de Hoek’s philosophical transformation means he no longer goes around girdling trees. It has, however, thrown him into a bitter new dispute over the Ballona reserve’s future. Officials with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the state Coastal Conservancy, allied with local nonprofits, have declared in notices of intent, blogs and an elegant website,, that the Ballona State Ecological Reserve needs to be restored. They want to tear out the ice plant and replace it with native marsh grasses. They want to bulldoze away old construction waste and tear down the levees that contain Ballona Creek, which cuts through the wetlands on its way to the ocean. They want to redesign the straightened creek so it meanders through the wetlands, mimicking a more natural stream.

Some local ecologists disagree with the state’s specific plans, but still believe a restoration is in order. Hanscom, van de Hoek and their allies, however — who include local Sierra Club leaders, politicians and even some journalists — believe almost anything but the most gentle rehabilitation, conducted by hand, would be a disaster. As they await the state’s long delayed environmental impact report for the restoration, they show up at county supervisor meetings, comment on blogs, and write letters to editors. If the restoration goes ahead, Hanscom told me, sweeping her hand over a carpet of green, less native than non, “everything that lives here now will die.”

Why every discussion about the Ballona Wetlands divides environmentalists into camps so entrenched they can barely talk to one another is a question that stumps even some of the people involved in the fight. Wetlands matter, yes — they protect inland settlements from storms, offer habitat to birds, rodents and even coyotes. They treat inland runoff before it enters the ocean. They contain plants that exist nowhere else in the world. Southern California has lost 90 percent of its original 49,000 acres of coastal wetlands. For Los Angeles, Ballona is the very last patch.

But Ballona’s significance goes beyond that. It’s as if, in the concrete sprawl of the L.A. metropolis, where almost every view is owned and where fistfights erupt over beach access, any swath of undeveloped land takes on outsized significance. It becomes a place to project all of our hopes for healing the climate and saving imperiled species, and perhaps even wresting power back from bureaucracy and developers.

This, right now, is the burden of Ballona, a landscape caught between competing visions of what is good, desirable and even natural in urban wildlands. If restoration ecology, as British scientist A.D. Bradshaw declared in the 1980s, is the “acid test of the ecological movement,” then Ballona is the acid test of the acid test — a place that might prove what restoration can, and perhaps should, achieve in an increasingly urbanized West.


Roy van de Hoek and Marcia Hanscom are advocates of a minimal restoration of the Ballona Wetlands.
Jonathan Alcorn

The little eucalyptus grove where van de Hoek counted butterflies — 218 of them — once belonged to a 2,000-acre system of seeps, sand dunes, willow groves, mud flats, lagoon and marsh called Ballona (pronounced Bye-ona). The Tongva people fished and farmed here before early Spanish colonists forced them inland to build missions. Early-19th century Mexican ranchers grazed their cattle on marsh grasses. Later, oil extractors lined the beaches with derricks.

Then came the influx of post-war residents looking for homes near the sea. Howard Hughes bought up much of Ballona in the 1940s for his own personal airport; in the 1960s, parts of the wetland were carved out to create Marina del Rey, a recreational boat harbor surrounded by upscale shopping and high-rise apartments. After Hughes died in 1976, his heirs laid plans to transform what remained of the property into a 1,000-acre housing and retail development called Playa Vista, but a local resident, Ruth Lansford, mobilized to stop them, founding the first activist group to defend the area, Friends of Ballona Wetlands. In so doing, she launched one of the signal battles of the Los Angeles environmental movement.

In 1990, Lansford entered into an agreement with a new group of developers, who promised to preserve 297 acres of wetland in exchange for the Friends dropping their decades-old lawsuit against the development. That was never enough for Marcia Hanscom, who in 1995  founded the Wetlands Action Network to organize Playa Vista resistance. That same year, Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen announced plans to locate their DreamWorks movie studio in Playa Vista, and the fight for Ballona became a blockbuster media event.

Celebrities led marches on the wetlands’ behalf; one activist staged a hunger strike. Hanscom, then in her 40s, found herself organizing wetland tours for journalists from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. People who spent most of their time in dark theaters rode around on school buses learning about the lifecycle of the tidewater goby, a tiny fish gone from Ballona but native to California lagoons. They learned why the bright yellow mustard flowers blooming in the wetlands didn’t belong, and why the ragged salt grass did. They learned that sloughs and marshes and springs once extended for 20 miles inland from the Southern California coast, and that Conservation International had, in 1996, identified the California Floristic Province from Tijuana, Mexico, to southern Oregon as one of 35 “biodiversity hotspots,” rich with species found nowhere else on Earth.

Ballona Wetlands location in the Los Angeles area. Click to view larger.

Eventually, the DreamWorks partners pulled out, but Hanscom had already leveraged the spotlight they’d flicked on. Under the banner, “Citizens United to Save All of Ballona,” she brought together more than 100 activist groups in pursuit of a sweeter deal. They didn’t stop Playa Vista — its apartments and shops and parks now loom over the wetlands like an enemy compound — but they did get the state Coastal Conservancy to purchase another 192 acres from the developer. In 2003, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife bundled it up with the acreage Lansford had secured, and designated it all an ecological reserve. Playa Vista turned another 36 acres just outside the reserve’s southeastern edge into a freshwater marsh to treat the development’s runoff. In 2005, Hughes’ heirs gave the state another 70 acres to settle a tax debt, and the modern boundaries of the reserve were set.

Salt flats in the Ballona Wetlands butt up against Marina Del Rey, California.
Jonathan Alcorn

Little has been done around the wetlands since then. The “Friends,” as they’re known, conduct tours and do restoration whenever possible. Hanscom and van de Hoek, who in 2005 founded the nonprofit Ballona Institute, aren’t allowed any official access and have uneasy dealings with everyone who does. The public has been officially shut out. In 2013, the Annenberg Foundation donated funds for a full-time land manager, and the state hired an ecologist, Richard Brody, the first in the preserve’s history. The Annenberg money ran out last year, and California Fish and Wildlife now struggles to fund Brody’s job. The Annenberg group also at one point made a bid to build an interpretative center on Ballona property that would have included a veterinary facility for stray cats and dogs. Amid intense opposition, last December the foundation backed out.

There’s no getting around the reality that Ballona now suffers from the kind of entropy that sets in when any urban wildland has been left alone too long. Brody says he and his crew pulled out 15 tons of debris last year alone. “Needles, stolen luggage, trash,” he says, much of it left behind by homeless people who use the preserve for campouts, constructing fire pits and setting up tents. Though fences surround parts of the reserve, labeled with signs warning “No Trespassing” and “No Dogs Allowed,” people let their dogs run loose and trample the vulnerable, low-to-the-ground nests of the state-endangered Belding’s savannah sparrow. Fountains of pampas grass blight the landscape with their feathery excess. Feral cats breed and roam and kill.

“We can’t look at this and say this is a natural system, everything’s fine and healthy,” says Karina Johnston, director of watershed programs for the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation, an independent nonprofit that supports the work of the state-run Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission. Nor can the necessary overhaul be accomplished with volunteer labor on weekends. “Over 3 million cubic yards of sediment have been dumped there,” Johnston says bluntly. “It didn’t get there with wheelbarrows.”

In 2012, the Bay Commission solicited a historical ecology study of Ballona to figure out what the wetlands looked like during a period from 1850 to 1890. The idea was to inform a restoration with evidence from the past. But even the study’s authors, Johnston says, disagree on its implications for restoration. An urban ecological reserve in a city of 5 million people is in some ways beyond redemption. Everything around it has been altered; it can’t be returned to exactly what it was. So how close should a restoration try to get?


Travis Longcore, an associate professor of spatial sciences at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, with a map he and a team created showing the historical geology of the Ballona Wetlands.
Jonathan Alcorn

Like so many modern ecological movements, the one that informs the Ballona restoration began with Aldo Leopold. In 1935, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Leopold led a crew in replanting native tallgrass prairie on exhausted farmland, an installation that later became the centerpiece of the school’s renowned arboretum. Fifty years later, two professors at the university, John Aber and William Jordan, formalized what they called “restoration ecology” as a field of study and practice. Aber saw it as a middle ground between exploitation and preservation, a way of acknowledging that humans can, if they put their collective will toward it, benefit nature.

Aber and Jordan were clear that the goal of restoration was to bring back the native plants and animals that inhabited an area before humans mucked it up. Even then, that wasn’t easy: Leopold himself had come to understand that you can’t bring back tallgrass prairie without the disturbances it evolved with, such as fire to kill woody plants that out-compete grasses. Well-intentioned replantings can also be brought down by the wrong vegetation mix: In 1975, a dune restoration near the Los Angeles International Airport, just down the street from Ballona, was stabilized with “native” plants that ended up encouraging insects whose competition nearly wiped out the El Segundo blue butterfly. The plants were native to Southern California, but not to the dune habitat where the butterfly had thrived.

Then there’s the question of time: What point in the past should a restoration try to re-create? In 2005, the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy began a violent restoration of Santa Cruz Island, off the Southern California coast, slaughtering feral pigs, burning tall fennel stands and relocating golden eagles, who had moved into the predator void left by DDT-ravaged bald eagles. The goal of the restoration was to return the island to what it was before 19th century ranchers colonized it. It was done primarily to save the endangered island fox.

That restoration has been a success, on its terms; since it was completed in 2007, the little fox has rebounded. But recent archaeological evidence suggests the fox might not be so indigenous. Thousands of years ago, gray foxes were brought to the islands by the Chumash Indians, who cherished them as companions; one theory suggests the island fox evolved from those animals. Whether that matters to you depends on which point in time you pick to consider the island “natural.”

At Ballona, it’s not just thousands of years of human influence that have made settling on a restoration epoch tricky. Earthquakes and weather, too, have altered the system through the years. Before 1825, the Los Angeles River emptied into the ocean at Ballona, and, with its relatively strong hydrologic force, kept the wetlands open to the tides. But after a series of seismic shocks and floods shoved the river’s course south, only little Ballona Creek trickled down from the inland watershed, most years lacking the force to breach the dunes and let saltwater in. The creek petered out into the estuary, feeding a freshwater marsh.

In the late 1930s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lined the banks of Ballona Creek with concrete to protect the communities around it from flooding. Where the creek emptied into the ocean, now with enough directed force to keep a channel open again, the Corps built concrete levees to keep those tides away from land.

A walking path traverses the fenced Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve, hard against the Playa Vista development in Los Angeles.
Jonathan Alcorn

Right now, the Ballona Wetlands contain a mixture of ecologies replenished meagerly by urban runoff, winter rains and minimal tides through a single gate. Whether any restoration should, or even can, return them to their mostly freshwater 19th century condition is a matter of much agitated debate. The state’s preferred plan would lower parts of the reserve to sea level and demolish the levees, allowing the tides to flow in and create more saltwater marsh. But that, says Travis Longcore, an associate professor of spatial sciences at the University of Southern California and an authority in ecological restoration, is “the wrong big move.” Those levees, he says, mimic a lost feature of the wetland as it evolved since 1825.

“The levees now function like an outer dune system,” Longcore explains, keeping the tides at bay. If you’re restoring the Ballona Wetlands for the sake of the species that historically depended on it, minimizing the influx of saltwater matters.

Unlike Hanscom and van de Hoek, Longcore isn’t completely opposed to a Ballona restoration. “I think there are smart things you could do with Ballona that would make it better ecologically, and function better for rare species that we care about,” he says. “Some of them do require bulldozers.” One would involve raising Culver Boulevard, a major street that bisects the wetlands. The wetlands could flow under the elevated road, connecting the north and south segments. Wildlife could then move freely under the road instead of ending up as roadkill. Culver Boulevard is also the official tsunami escape route, so raising it would be good for public safety, as well as a hedge against climate-influenced sea-level rise.

But Longcore, who is president of Los Angeles Audubon, also wants any restoration of Ballona to protect its current population of birds and animals. And that goal, he says, is often at odds with the state plan, which he believes imposes a simple, ostensibly low-maintenance ideal he calls “flush, baby, flush” on a complex and diverse ecology. That plan will have dire consequences for the habitat of certain species, like the federally endangered California gnatcatcher, a tiny bird recently spotted in Ballona’s coastal scrub for the first time since 1880. The burrowing owl would also lose ground were seawater to flood its habitat, and more would be destroyed, at least temporarily, when fill from the excavation of a tidal basin gets dumped on upland habitat.

To underscore his argument, Longcore brings up another restoration, completed two years ago, 20 miles up the coast from Ballona, at Malibu Lagoon. Most local environmentalists consider the restoration — done chiefly for the sake of water quality — an unqualified success. The restoration did not open the lagoon to the ocean, as would the removal of Ballona Creek’s levees, but it did create much more open water than existed there before, replacing an algae-clouded marsh with a clean, open lagoon. Biologists have reported that the populations of certain endemic fish, like the tidewater goby, are on the rise.

And yet Longcore believes that the restoration got it wrong. “Of course, there are tidewater gobies there,” he says heatedly. “There were tidewater gobies there before.” It’s the other creatures that the $7 million state-run collaboration ran roughshod over that trouble him, animals like the south coast marsh vole. The vole, a state species of “special concern,” also exists at Ballona; it occupies a wet, meadowy area, says Longcore, above the tidal zone. Before the restoration, Malibu Lagoon had a lot of habitat for the vole, which needs room to escape the incoming tides. The construction of the new estuary dredged and bulldozed most of it away to make way for more open water.

“So if you ask, ‘Was the Malibu Lagoon project a successful restoration for the south coast marsh vole?’ ” Longcore says, “the answer would be no. They removed a lot of individuals. I don’t know where they put them. Some specimens came to the natural history museum to be, you know, specimens.”

Snowy egret in the slough of the Ballona Wetlands.
Jonathan Coffin/Stonebird, CC via Flickr

Trash in the Ballona Wetlands reserve.
Jonathan Coffin/Stonebird, CC via Flickr

I talked to Longcore in his basement office on campus, on a brisk, showery day in December. At 45, he is tall and energetic, with a fountain of short dark hair. He talks with his entire being, even while sitting in his chair. He is a consummate scholar: He has examined old surveyor accounts and 19th century coastal maps, and claims to have read every L.A. Times story that mentions Ballona. He has contributed to several historical ecology reports on California’s coastal wetlands, including the one on Ballona curated by the Bay Commission. And he argues that Southern California is moving in the wrong direction when it comes to restoring coastal wetlands.

“We’ve had a San Francisco Bay model of wetland restoration cookie-cuttered onto almost all of our lagoon restorations here in Southern California,” Longcore says. That model favors big, open bays and lagoons. A 1997 restoration of Batiquitos Lagoon on the North San Diego County coast jettied the mouth permanently open to the ocean; another wetland, Bolsa Chica, 30 miles down the coast from Ballona, was reconfigured nine years ago with a fully tidal lagoon. Longcore argues that such projects are not restorations, because they create permanent tidal openings where only ephemeral openings were found in the past. Instead, like Ballona, both Batiquitos and Bolsa Chica were blocked from the tides by sand bars and sediment, except when a major winter storm briefly blasted a tidal inlet clear.

Longcore shows me a color-coded map of the North San Diego County coast in the 19th century. The pink on the map represents “seasonally flooded salt flat,” he says. Salt flats are dry most of the spring and summer, wet when rain falls or storms blow in. “And the reason they matter ecologically,” says Longcore, “is that they provide seasonal habitat with different depths of water for all kinds of migratory birds: short shorebirds, tall shorebirds, dabbling ducks, diving ducks.” Ninety-five percent of the North County salt flats are gone. Meanwhile, open water in the area’s coastal wetlands has increased by 600 percent.

Wetland habitat “is hard for people to get their minds around,” Longcore says. “It’s neither fish nor fowl. You can drive a car across it sometimes; it’s covered with water otherwise. People have a hard time designing for it,” and the public has a hard time appreciating it. “You hear people say, ‘Oh look! There’s now an octopus in Bolsa Chica! Isn’t this great? We have diversity!’ But no, octopus do not belong in Bolsa Chica.” Sea slugs, adapted to opening and closing systems, do.

Longcore knows it’s a lot easier to love blue water than to embrace the messy, tattered, sometimes brown, sometimes mucky, salt flats. Even Longcore’s wife thinks he’s weak on messaging. “She says, ‘Look, if your argument is, ‘This stuff that looks ugly to people is good,’ you’re going to lose. Because politicians aren’t going to spend the time to sit down and understand the history of coastal wetlands. As long as there’s no homeless and no trash, and there’s blue water to look at and it’s green, they’re going to be happy.’ All they want to know is, ‘Is this going to be pretty?’ ”

Environmental scientist Shelley Luce, at Ballona Creek in the Ballona Wetlands area.
Jonathan Alcorn

It was pouring rain the December day I met Shelley Luce for lunch at a French restaurant in Culver City, a few miles inland from the wetlands — a place once so verdant with riparian beauty that producers in the 1920s built studios here to shoot scenes of pioneers fording Ballona Creek. It was the kind of day that makes people like Luce, an environmental scientist, dream of freeing the city’s streams from their confines, returning the region to its secret hydrological roots, when the Southern California landscape ran wet with creeks and sloughs.

Luce loves the old survey maps of this once-wet city as much as Longcore does. But historical ecology is “only a snapshot,” she says, and she doesn’t believe the wetlands have to be returned to what they were in 1850 for a restoration to be meaningful. And anyway, it can’t be done: The riverine forces that once shaped the Ballona Valley, transporting rocks and sediment from the mountains through the watershed, no longer exist in the paved-over city. Now there are “gas lines and airports and private property,” Luce says. “We have to consider what’s possible.”

Luce is 44, willowy and calm, and an influential coalition builder. She was a major player on the Ballona restoration until recently, when she left her post as director of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission to serve as executive director for the nonprofit Environment Now. She still participates in the discussion, publishing a newsletter called Access Ballona and sitting on advisory committees. And she’s still the scientist who makes the best case for the state’s restoration plans.

Luce doesn’t dispute Longcore’s description of Ballona as closed to the tides. “It looks from the historical ecology that there was more freshwater than (salt marsh) at times,” she says. Still, she wants those levees to come out, in part so that Ballona can join the citywide re-wilding effort revolving around the Los Angeles River, where the Army Corps last May approved a $1 billion project to demolish 11 miles of the river’s 75-year-old concrete banks.

But she also wants the levees out because she wants the wetlands to be wet again, as they were back when free-flowing freshwater creeks and streams and occasional tides refreshed them. For the creeks to water the wetlands again, they would have to be released from their concrete culverts, and floodplains would have to be cleared of homes, offices and shopping malls. “That’s not going to happen in my lifetime,” Luce says. So let Ballona be what it can be: A self-sustaining, mostly tidal marsh. Saltwater marsh is habitat, too, and supporters of the restoration believe that certain species, like the endangered California least tern and the clapper rail, might rebound in the project’s wake.

Stilts on the Ballona Creek Estuary.
Jonathan Coffin/Stonebird, CC via Flickr

British restoration pioneer Bradshaw once described the American approach to restoration as: “If you can’t put it back like it was … then don’t do it!” But that, he wrote, is “a counsel of perfection leading only to despair.” If a landscape has been altered beyond redemption, he said, it’s OK to find another model for it — one that fits the local community, meshes with the local ecology, and accommodates the modern era and its inhabitants.

That’s exactly what Luce believes the state’s plan does. “We might create more saltwater marsh in Ballona than was there in 1850,” she admits. “It might be closer to the way things looked in 1650. We don’t know.” Either way, she says, there’s a net gain for coastal wetlands. “We’ve lost a lot of salt marsh up and down the coast, too,” Luce says, though only a handful of those areas were ever fully open to the ocean. “We have an opportunity to get one or the other back at Ballona, and both are good. The salt marsh option just means we’ll have something that might be more sustainable over time.”

Longcore disagrees. If Ballona is opened to the tides, it will need periodic expensive dredging to stay that way, because sediment happens. And beyond what an expanded salt marsh would do to displace existing habitat, he worries about what will happen to the resident animals during construction.

Luce admits some will die, even if you take great care not to kill them. “None of us like it,” she says. “But we’re doing it because two years later, the whole place will come back 10 times better.”

There’s no guarantee of that, of course. Bradshaw considered restoration the best test of ecologists’ understanding of nature, but he knew back then that their understanding of nature wasn’t perfect. It isn’t now, either. Any restoration is to some extent a risk: No one knows for sure whether any altered landscape or its biodiversity will come back better, worse, or simply different.


A Harlan’s red-tailed hawk, wintering in the Ballona Wetlands, with the Hollywood sign, 13 miles away, in the background.
Jonathan Coffin/Stonebird, CC via Flickr

Roy van de Hoek no longer gives tours of the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve. In 2008, he got into a dustup with Brody, then a biological consultant for state Fish and Wildlife, who had covered a segment of the wetland with a tarp to smother alien vegetation without herbicides. The goal was to restore native milk vetch, which had been wiped out in the wetlands in the 1950s. Van de Hoek objected — too vehemently — that the tarp would also kill squirrels, voles and Pacific chorus frogs. He was subsequently banned from the reserve.

So it was without his and Hanscom’s company that I trespassed into the reserve myself, around sunset one Sunday afternoon, walking around behind a pocket park where only wooden stumps and signs warned me away.

Lizards skittered under my feet, and ducks landed out on a bare circle of sand known as the “horse-riding ring,” because at one point, that’s what it was. I took a deep breath and inhaled the bright, green breeze, thick with sea and flora. I walked among tendrils of California salt grass and stands of pickleweed, plants whose names I knew mostly because van de Hoek taught me to revere them a decade ago, back when he believed they were sacred, and told me to kneel upon the ground in their presence.

No one stopped me, so I kept walking. Out onto the sandy riding ring, which was covered with footprints both human and canine — coyote, maybe; domestic dog, more likely. The ducks startled away. I walked and walked, sneezing through fields of non-native yellow crown daisy, tripping over bouncy succulents. But I never felt at ease. I was alone in an unsafe city. I was breaking the law. I worried about the Belding’s savannah sparrow, nesting all around me in the pale green fingers of pickleweed. 

And yet the Ballona Wetlands is still an enchanted, astonishing place, where nature persists on whatever terms civilization has allowed. I could see the adaptability Hanscom and van de Hoek so worshipped. But I also wanted trails, interpretative signs, a place to sit and think. What if I, and so many people who live nearby, could go for an evening walk in the reserve, counting the least terns and bufflehead ducks? How might that change life in our crowded and overdeveloped city?

I thought about what Shelley Luce had told me, that she considers it “a crime on the part of public agencies that, 10 years after the purchase, (Ballona) is not one iota more accessible.” I also thought about what Longcore said, that the wetlands’ fate isn’t a matter of public opinion; it’s a scientific call. “It is,” he says, “an ecological reserve.” And I thought it not so far-fetched that Ballona could be both an ecological reserve and a place the public could enjoy, with rules, and guidance. Designing for that would require a process that has been difficult to conduct around the Ballona Wetlands, ever since the rifts broke open around Playa Vista and the wetlands became a battleground. It would require open public meetings, leadership, stakeholders willing to hash out a compromise, and a steady stream of money for care and maintenance.

A constructive process could arise around the state’s environmental review when it comes out at the end of the year. Or it could be thwarted by more internecine acrimony in the lawsuits that will inevitably follow. Land manager Brody, at least, still has faith. “I look forward to the day when I meet all of these people out on the trail in the reserve,” he says. “It’s going to be a great place.”

Update: The original version of this story said that Roy van de Hoek girdled eucalyptus while a Bureau of Land Management employee; he actually did that two years after leaving his job with the agency.

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor at High Country News. She has also written for Sierra, Capital and Main, TakePart, The Atlantic and the Los Angeles Times.


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    New Mexico Wild is seeking a Gila Grassroots Organizer who is passionate about public lands and community engagement. The Gila Grassroots Organizer will take a...
    Chiricahua riparian ecosystem: 5100 ft elevation:18+ inches of rain/year: 1/4 mile creek through property: The Chiricahuas' have been called: "The most biologically diverse place in...
    Adorable quaint cabin on the Arizona Strip, on the foothills of the Kaibab Plateau with 260 acres bordering BLM lands on two sides of the...
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.