Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What a contrast! The Discovery Center Authority and Native Habitat Preservation Authority

In the course of some recent research I happened upon some Whittier Daily News Stories on the Puente Hills Landfill Native Habitat Restoration Authority and its activities and projects.

The contrast between its habitat restoration focus and the bulldozers-and-buildings focus of the San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority is truly striking.

The newspaper's Mike Sprague wrote on Nov. 21 that about a dozen preservation authority volunteers "helped clear non-native plants in the Whittier hills and put in some that are indigenous to the area."

"This was the first restoration day of what is expected to take place every other month, said Shannon Lucas, ecologist for Puente Hills Landfill Native Habitat Preservation Authority."

(An ecologist! The preservation authority has an ecologist. Perhaps if the Discovery Center Authority spent less on lawyers and public relations consultants it might be able to afford an ecologist too.)

I also happened upon a story (sorry, no link) from June 1, 2006, in which Sprague writes about the dedication of a "$1.2 million wildlife underpass that creates a critical link between the Whittier Narrows nature area and the Cleveland National Forest 31 miles away."

The underpass, 12 years in the making, really got going when "preservation authority officials obtained funding for the project through the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Caltrans."

Contrast this preservation-and-restoration focus with the development focus of the Discovery Center Authority.

Whereas the preservation authority is working to connect and to improve the wildlife corridor, the proposed Discovery Center--and the other development projects to which it opens the door at the Whittier Narrows Natural Area--threatens to impede wildlife movement.

But it shouldn't come as a surprise that the environment, habitat and wildlife are not the priority for the Discovery Center Authority--the focus of the agency is the construction of a building, after all.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

RMC's Lario Creek project 'could hurt water conservation': Water Replenishent District

Yet another Rivers and Mountains Conservancy project proposed for the Whittier Narrows Natural Area could set back the cause of resource conservation said a senior Water Replenishment District official on Wednesday.

The district's senior hydrologist, Nancy Matsumoto, said that the Lario Creek project, a proposal to dramatically alter a channel used to move water from the San Gabriel River to the Rio Hondo spreading grounds, could hurt water conservation efforts.

Under the RMC-backed proposal, the channel, known as Zone 1 Ditch, would be replaced with a man-made creek planted with wetland-type vegetation, according to a story in the Whittier Daily News on a planned revision to the Whittier Narrows Master Plan.

"
Wetland plants would need water and where would it get it?" asked Matsumoto.

Matsumoto also focused her criticisms on the meandering design of the project. Journalist Mike Sprague writes that Matsumoto said such a design "would take longer for water to move through, possibly increasing evaporation."

At a time of drought and increasing water rates, any project that increases water usage should be greeted with skepticism. I won't call the project a greenwash exactly, but the potential environmental costs certainly do appear to be greater than the meager benefits.

The proposed Discovery Center, on the other hand, is the epitome of greenwashing.

Not only would it replace wildlife habitat with parking stalls and replace dozens of mature, majestic trees with meeting space for water district officials and bureaucrats, but it also would cause an explosion in resource use (e.g., five times more water used than the current nature center) and in greenhouse gas emissions.

And all or most of it paid for by our tax dollars and from our water bills.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Whittier Narrows Master Plan meeting Wednesday


A meeting to solicit comments from the public on a new master plan for the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area is scheduled to take place Wednesday from 2 - 4 p.m. in Pico Rivera.

The location of the meeting is the Pico Rivera Parks and Recreation Department's community room, 6767 Passons Blvd.

The meeting is being called by the Watershed Conservation Authority, a joint powers authority consisting of the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.
How is bulldozing dozens of mature trees and paving over wildlife habitat in a county Significant Ecological Area to build a meeting center for bureaucrats and a 150-car parking lot in any way compatible with conservation or restoration?
The information I've picked up from the project's Notice of Preparation and from an article in the Whittier Daily News raise a few questions.

First, why is the WCA the lead agency on this rather than the landowner, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers? (USACE's Sepulveda Basin Master Plan is also being revised, but there the corps apparently hasn't ceded control of the planning process.)

Second, why is the Whittier Narrows scoping meeting being held midweek, 2 - 4 p.m.? Is the WCA intentionally trying to suppress public participation? Or is the WCA staff simply disinclined toward weekend or evening meetings? (Again, contrast this with USACE's Saturday, 10 a.m. - 2 p.m., meeting regarding Sepulveda Basin.)

And third, why is the Discovery Center being proposed for what is identified in the new master plan as a conservation and restoration zone? (See map above.) How is bulldozing dozens of mature trees and paving over wildlife habitat in a county Significant Ecological Area to build a meeting center for bureaucrats and a 150-car parking lot in any way compatible with conservation or restoration?

The logic stays screwy when you read in the Whittier Daily News that Norma E. Garcia, deputy director for Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation, says they "didn't want to intensify the use of Whittier Narrows."

How is doubling annual visitation of the natural area to 120,000 people without first analyzing the potential impacts of such growth anything other than intensifying use of Whittier Narrows?

Perhaps the county and the RMC need to get their story straight.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

An expression of gratitude on Thanksgiving

I want to take a moment today to express my gratitude for the opportunity I was given when I learned about the effort to protect the Whittier Narrows Natural Area and Nature Center.

So I'd like to say thank you to . . .

Journalist Louis Sahagun for the 2008 story that alerted me to the threat posed by the San Gabriel River Discovery Center to nature, to the community and to taxpayers.

People like Jim Odling and the other members of the Friends of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area who helped to give me and many others a voice on the Discovery Center issue.

Members of the community, who have spoken with great heartfelt eloquence about the importance of the Natural Area to them and to their families over the decades.

The twentysomethings and teenagers who have shown me that protection and preservation of the Natural Area is an issue that crosses generational lines.

The many accomplished and inspiring community and environmental activists who I've met through organizations such as the Nature Center Associates, Audubon Society and Sierra Club.

My family, for their support now and on so many past occasions.

A heartfelt thank you to all of you and to many others. You have given me more than you know.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Authority board meetings public in name only?

The supposedly "public" meetings of the San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority are anything but. And they seem to get less public all the time.
Meeting at 8:30 a.m. on Monday mornings "was determined to be the best time for all of our Board Members." -- Belinda Faustinos, San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority
About a year ago, a member of the community attending a 1:30 p.m. weekday meeting of the board said that such meeting times were inappropriate when most of the purported beneficiaries of the project--the community, families, students--would be unable to attend.

Executive director Belinda Faustinos responded that the board would consider moving meetings to a more appropriate time for the community. But when the 2009 board schedule was published shortly thereafter, every meeting was scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on a weekday.

But wait! The Discovery Center board did finally change its meeting times.

Has the board, consisting solely of government bureaucrats and water district executives, deigned to give the public a true chance to participate in a process and project that will likely cost taxpayers and rate payers tens of millions dollars--for a water museum?

Only if you think 8:30 a.m. on Monday mornings is a convenient time for "public" meetings.

The board thinks it's convenient--for its own members.

According to Ms. Faustinos (in the board packet for last Monday's meeting), having these meetings at 8:30 a.m. "was determined to be the best time for all of our Board Members."

But not to worry, folks. Once the board decides how it's going to spend your money, they'll make a special effort to have an afternoon meeting for you. But don't count on getting a good estimate on the cost of construction, much less on how much it's going to cost you to run your new water museum.

Here's hoping you can spare the vacation time for these so-called "public" meetings. Because heaven forbid we inconvenience the authority.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

East Yards to host cumulative impacts workshop

East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice will host a two-day workshop on the cumulative impacts of pollution.

The workshop, held 6 - 8 p.m. on consecutive Thursday's beginning Nov. 12, will provide information on toxins, polluters and decision-making processes that affect the community.

An expert at the second meeting, Nov. 19, will teach data collection and help people become data collectors in their own neighborhoods.

The workshop will take place in the EYCEJ Community Room, 5117 Kinsie St., Commerce 90040.

The workshop will include training supplies, Spanish translation services, dinner and child care services.

Registration is required. See contact info on the EYCEJ home page.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A bit of tidying at the nature center

On Saturday, members of the Whittier Narrows Nature Center Associates took the bull by the horns and cleaned and tidied the nature center gift shop.

It wasn't spring cleaning, but fall cleaning. Which makes sense since fall and winter are the height of bird activity at Whittier Narrows.

The project was the idea of Associate Jessica Nava, who led the effort that involved about half a dozen volunteers and staff.

There are some very nice items in the gift shop: a good selection of books, some wonderful nature photographs, naturalist equipment for kids, and small items to serve as mementos of a visit to the Whittier Narrows wildlife sanctuary.

There are a number of nature walks offered each month by the Associates, the staff and now the Whittier Area Audubon Society.

Plan a visit or just drop in for some peace among the wildlife.
--
More photos at Flickr.com

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Rescue Dog Association at the Natural Area

I stopped by the Whittier Narrows Natural Area this morning and found the parking lot full of SUVs, people in khaki and lots of dogs.

Turns out the all-volunteer California Rescue Dog Association, or CARDA, was holding a training session there.

A member told me they had 12 - 14 members present and an equal number of dogs. Lots of German shepherds and Labrador retrievers, if I remember correctly.

He told me they trained their dogs for open area searches, trailing and cadaver searches in various environments and settings.

I asked whether they'd had any involvement in the post-Katrina rescue and recovery efforts, and he said members had traveled to the Gulf area, with one staying out there four weeks.

I mentioned my own interest in the Natural Area, told him there were plans to build a big water museum and conference center.

His reaction?

"There's too much concrete already," he said, "and too little open space.

"That's why kids want to stay indoors and play video games. Their only chance to see nature is when playing with their Wii."
--
Photo: California Rescue Dog Association.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Whittier Narrows named best educational hike

The secret's out: the LA Weekly just named the Whittier Narrows Natural Area best educational hike.

The Natural Area appears in the Weekly's current "Best of LA" issue.

Todd Kraining writes that "deep inside the sanctuary, the solitude of the desert can be a liberating experience." But he also says that, "With all the paw prints pressed into the sand around you, you have the feeling of never quite being alone."

Krainin also mentions the transmission towers, power lines and billboards that mark the Natural Area as being part of an urban landscape. Yet, he writes, "this is a quiet, relaxing place, completely free of charge. That much, at least, is the way nature’s supposed to be."

Photo: Preschoolers from the Nueva Maravilla Child Development Center in Los Angeles on a visit to the Whittier Narrows Natural Area on April 1, 2009. (Photo by Lou Orr)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Free screening of film on environmental and social costs of oil drilling Thursday night in Whittier

The documentary Split Estate, will be screened at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 1, at St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Whittier.

The film "maps a tragedy in the making, as citizens in the path of a new drilling boom in the Rocky Mountain West struggle against the erosion of their civil liberties, their communities and their health."

A preview is available on YouTube.

The free screening will be followed by a discussion of oil drilling in Montebello and Whittier, facilitated by the Sierra Club's Save the Montebello Hills Task Force.

The task force and the Whittier Area Peace and Justice Coalition are co-sponsoring the event.

St. Matthias is at 7056 Washington Ave. in Whittier.

For more information, please call (562) 587-6270 or (562) 233-8579.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Community turns up heat on Central Basin MWD

A recent story in the Eastern Group Publications family of newspapers shows that Central Basin Municipal Water District is taking growing criticism for its decision to more than double a surcharge on water to its customers.

The water district is one of four agencies and water districts that is spending millions in taxpayer and ratepayer money on the controversial San Gabriel River Discovery Center project.

The story was originally reported in the Whittier Daily News, which seemed to pooh-pooh the expressions of anger of officials whose cities and agencies buy water from Central Basin.

But then the story was reported by the Los Angeles Times--which also mentioned the district's spending on the Discovery Center in 2008.

From there, the story seemed to grow some legs and traveled out into the blogosphere. And then it appeared in Eastern Group's newspapers and on its website.

Central Basin's rate increase now is attracting the attention not only of ratepayers, city officials and officials at water agencies that buy from Central Basin, but also of the state legislature.

EGP reported that cities that are part of the Southeast Water Coalition have asked for an audit of the water district's recycled water line project and "the district’s justifications for its rate increase."

What I'd like to know is how Central Basin's justifies its financial support of the Discovery Center.

According to EGP, the water district's executive director, Art Aguilar, issued a statement "explaining the rate increase is the result of budgetary difficulties and infrastructure project needs: 'This action reflects our best effort to balance the budget by reducing our agency’s spending coupled with a necessary rate increase to ensure essential services and needed infrastructure projects will continue.'"

Funny how Central Basin tries to defend its rate increase as coming on top of budget cuts and being necessary to provide essential services and to build needed infrastructure projects even as it throws its customers' money at the Discovery Center.

How much has Central Basin spent on the project rejected by the community during hearings on its draft environmental impact report?

Nearly a million dollars--and counting.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Lots of activities still ahead this month

The Friends calendar of activities has been updated, and there's lots of good stuff still ahead of us this month.

This Sunday is the Friends monthly working meeting. Now that the comment periods have closed on the Discovery Center Authority's draft EIR and the Army Corps of Engineers' environmental assessment, we'll probably be discussing next steps in the campaign.

The meeting is at 1 p.m. in the Whittier Narrows Nature Center picnic area.

Also Sunday is a barbecue hosted by the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. EYCEJ is a nonprofit organization "working towards a safe and healthy environment for communities that are disproportionately suffering the negative impacts of industrial pollution."

The barbecue is 3 - 5 p.m. at Bristow Park in Commerce. For more info, visit the EYCEJ website.

And don't forget to visit the Natural Area for community events there. This month there are two nature walks (one morning, one evening) and a trail clean up. More info on these activities can be found on the Friends calendar or by calling the Whittier Narrows Nature Center at (626) 575-5523.

See you at the Natural Area!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Montebello Hills super yard sale this weekend

The Sierra Club's Save the Montebello Hills Task Force is having a giant yard sale Friday, Sept. 4, through Sunday, Sept. 6.

The sale is a great opportunity to clear out some clutter or pick up a gently used item--all while supporting the cause of saving the Montebello Hills, the city's last remaining open space.

Items may be brought on the days of the sale at the corner of Avenida de la Merced Ave and Hibiscus Street in Montebello. (Map)

The task force states the remaining 500 undeveloped acres of the hills "are a unique natural area, which support numerous native plants and animals including the now rare coastal sage scrub habitat, the endangered California gnatcatcher, and red tailed hawks, which can sometimes be seen soaring over the nearby Pomona (60) Freeway."

Much of the remaining acreage is under threat of development for residential and commercial use. The Sierra Club and task force propose preserving the hills as a natural park that would provide "recreation, relaxation, ecotourism, and an opportunity to exercise and experience nature for residents of Montebello, numerous nearby cities and developed county areas."

Volunteers are also welcome to help with the yard sale, and any help in promoting the event would be much appreciated.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A visit to Placerita Canyon

Yesterday, The chair of the Friends of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area, Jim Odling, and I visited the Placerita Canyon Natural Area and Nature Center in Newhall, Calif.

For me, the visit was a chance to see firsthand the results of a recently completed $2.1 million "eco-friendly" renovation of the nature center that I learned of through a story in The Signal.

My impression of the renovated nature center was that it was neat and clean. I also found it a bit sterile, but that's probably only due to the fact that the staff and volunteers have only been back in the buildings for a couple of months. Give them some time to grow into the place, and I have no doubt it'll soon reflect the character and dedication of everyone there.

The renovation at Placerita Canyon could provide the model for a similar renovation of the Whittier Narrows Nature Center.

Rather than waste tens of millions of tax dollars to give government bureaucrats and water agency officials a conference center--the San Gabriel River Discovery Center--on a wildlife sanctuary, the authority and its supporters could take a truly community-focused approach.

People such as Supervisor Gloria Molina could take the money they've already committed to the project and direct it instead to a renovation of Whittier Narrows facilities, thereby saving the taxpayer and rate payer millions.

An eco-friendly renovation would be the fiscally and environmentally responsible approach. It would also keep the focus at Whittier Narrows where it belongs: on the needs and desires of our diverse community.

The Discovery Center, on the other hand, is a massive gamble with our tax dollars and our parkland--a gamble that, even if it succeeds, would deliver the vast majority of benefits to government agencies and water districts.

Please note: More photos from Placerita Canyon are available on Flickr.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Thanks for comments on environmental assessment

I just want to say thank you to everyone who was able to submit comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on its San Gabriel River Discovery Center environmental assessment.

It felt like a chore to me to find the energy to comment on the EA after we put so much energy into commenting on the draft environmental impact report. But it had to get done, and it got done.

So again thanks for taking the time to review the EA and submit comments.

It looks like some of the next important steps are to be taken by the San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The authority, I believe, will review and address the comments and then decide whether it is ready to issue a final EIR, which would include the alternative the agency had decided to pursue.

Similarly, the corps will review and address the comments on its EA and then decide whether a full environmental impact statement is required.

Please don't treat the above as gospel. I'm new to this environmental review business, so please consider these comments as the work of a a novice.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Tying it all together: the Narrows, the watershed and even Eaton Canyon in the news recently

There seems to be much activity these days regarding the Whittier Narrows, a possible national recreation area designation for the San Gabriel Mountains and River, and a possible trail linking Eaton Canyon to the Rio Hondo.

The Whittier Daily News reported on this month's Visioning Whittier Narrows event. The Friends were at the event, providing information on the campaign to save the Natural Area, meeting other people from the community, doing a little face painting. We and other members of the community were able to share their concerns about the proposed San Gabriel River Discovery Center.

The Discovery Center is only one part of the larger recreation area, but it's an expensive part. And controversial. So its understandable that it should get more attention.

I find the whole "Visioning" thing very confusing. If it really is about a revision to the Whittier Narrows Master Plan, then I'd expect something vastly more structured and formal that the sort of festival we participated in on Aug. 1. (That's not to say I didn't enjoy it.)

Also in the news this month is a story about a study being conducted by the National Park Service to see if the San Gabriel Mountains and the San Gabriel River might be good candidates for a new national recreation area. The NPS has scheduled five meetings for public input. More information can be found at the NPS study website.

And finally, the Pasadena Star-News is reporting that a local conservancy will be studying the possibility of building a trail along Eaton Wash that would link Eaton Canyon with the Rio Hondo. It's an interesting possibility--but I'd be glad never to see the phrase "Emerald Necklace" again.

Can't we just have the trails and do without the marketing gimmicks?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Deadline approaching for comments on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental assessment

Just when you thought it was safe to put down your red pen for marking up Discovery Center environmental documents, another deadline approaches.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' environmental assessment is out and its Aug. 20 comment deadline is less than two weeks away.

The document can be found online at the Discovery Center Authority website.

It looks as if comments will only be accepted if they are submitted in writing and postmarked by Aug. 20.

Comments should be sent to:

Carvel Bass
Operations Branch
US Army Corps of Engineers, Los Angeles District
915 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 11063
Los Angeles, CA 90017

You can find a list of questions to ask when reviewing environmental documents in a June 9 blog post.

Any help members of the community could provide in critiquing this document would be much appreciated.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Join us Saturday at Whittier Narrows Lakes Area

The Friends of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area will be in the Lakes Area--what I usually call Legg Lake--on Saturday for the Experience Whittier Narrows event.

The event is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The folks from the Sierra Club's Montebello Hills campaign will have a booth there too.

The Visioning Whittier Narrows website states the event "will share preliminary ideas about recreational opportunities, optimized use of water resources, reconnection of communities to the natural environment and native habitat restoration."

The event is tied to a planned revision of the Whittier Narrows Master Plan. You can read more about all of this here.

We plan to have puppets and face painting at the Friends booth, so bring the kids along.

See you Saturday!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

'Things are not as they teach us'

I took a tour today of Los Angeles' Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve.

Partly I looked forward to seeing something new, partly I wanted to compare the Whittier Narrows Natural Area to another wildlife area in Southern California.

I and a couple of other people from the campaign were led on our tour by members of the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Committee. The three of us were impressed by the abundance of wildlife, especially birds, we encountered this afternoon.

All three of us are members of the Audubon Society, and as we stopped time and again to view egrets, cormorants, herons, cooper's hawks and ospreys, one of our hosts gently reminded us that we weren't there to "add to our lists" but to tour the reserve.

The comment elicited laughs and smiles.

In the comparison between the Natural Area and the reserve, two things struck me.

First, the reserve showed far better maintenance and far more extensive restoration. This difference must certainly be attributable to the wildlife committee's two decades of work. It must also be attributable to the difference between city funding and county funding for parks and recreation.

Second, the reserve has far less infrastructure than that proposed for the Natural Area in the San Gabriel River Discovery Center project. A parking lot, a storage building, a restroom facility and a small amphitheater (pictured at right)--that's all there is at the reserve.

No $30 million 18,000-square-foot watershed education and conference center. No 150-seat multipurpose meeting room. No artificial wetland to capture runoff from all the other structures. Just lots of restored habitat and wildlife.

And yet even without a discovery center, Los Angeles Audubon, San Fernando Valley Audubon and other groups seem to offer a rich calendar of programs for families, student groups and others at the wildlife reserve.

When I reflect on the story the Discovery Center Authority has created, telling us that environmental education and conservation depend on the discovery center being built, well, it makes me angry.

Effective environmental education probably depends on a lot of things. Access to the outdoors, firsthand experiences of nature, and dedicated professional and volunteer educators are among them.

Construction of a conference center for bureaucrats and water officials is not.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Double charges for discovery center environmental review? USACE releases environmental assessment

I'm certain many of us have had the experience of seeing mystery charges on some of our bills. Well, something similar may be going on with the San Gabriel River Discovery Center.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its environmental assessment on the discovery center.

Wait, you say, how does this differ from the draft environmental impact report?

Why weren't these two environmental documents rolled into one?

Excellent questions.

USACE owns most of the land that would be used for the discovery center project. But in a situation such as we have here, it is common practice to create a single environmental document rather than have every agency produce its own. Saves the taxpayer money.

Not only were two separate but similar documents produced at significant taxpayer expense--but both were written by the same consultant: EDAW, Inc. EDAW certainly hit the jackpot with the discovery center.

Remember, folks: its YOUR money.

The public review period for the EA ends Aug. 20.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Lincoln on the importance of public opinion

Public opinion matters.

I'm modifying my statement of a few days ago. A bit of reflection and the recollection of a statement by Abraham Lincoln have allowed me to recognize the value of public opinion.

"With public sentiment, nothing can fail," Lincoln said. "Without it, nothing can succeed."

In the matter of the discovery center, this goes at least to the question of the project's credibility.

At two public meetings on the discovery center and its draft environmental impact report, about 30 people spoke, and only two spoke in favor of the project.

Most of the others, from numerous cities in the area, criticized the project or questioned the refusal of the Discovery Center Authority to listen to the community or said simply that they wanted the Natural Area protected and the current nature center preserved.

As I said, this goes to the question of credibility.

The community has told the Discovery Center Authority, in no uncertain terms, what it wants.

Therefore, if the project is truly community focused, it should probably go away and be replaced by a plan to renovate the current nature center.

A renovation of the nature center would be everything the discovery center isn't, including:
  • Responsive to the community
  • Economical
  • Sustainable
And perhaps above all, renovating the nature center--rather than bulldozing acres of wildlife habitat to build a meeting center for bureaucrats--would be the true act of environmental stewardship.

In the matter of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area and the discovery center, the community knows what it wants.

And the community is right.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Community rejects discovery center -- AGAIN

If you needed proof that the San Gabriel River Discovery Center is museo non grata in the Whittier Narrows area, yesterday's meeting on the project's draft EIR provided an avalanche of proof.

Of 20 people who spoke during the oral comment period, only two said they supported the project. (And there was some question whether one of those two had been a consultant on the discovery center during the previous fiscal year, which ended just a few weeks ago.)

The other comments ran a gamut that included:
  • Concerns that taxes would be paying for the project
  • Concerns that fees would be introduced
  • Concerns about the impact on the habitat and wildlife
  • Concerns about the accuracy and adequacy of the EIR
On that last point, for example, a bike trail from the river to the discovery center was mentioned in the project description, but wasn't included anywhere else in the EIR.

With so much opposition to the project, it can be hard to understand why the thing is like the Energizer Bunny. It just keeps going and going and going . . .

Actually, my favorite metaphor for the discovery center is movie zombie. You know, a hollow-eyed creature that's dead but doesn't know it's dead, and just goes about eating brains and wreaking general havoc.

Unfortunately, this isn't the movies. There's a lot at stake.

Tens of millions in public dollars. Community access to the nature located right in our backyard. The opportunity for firsthand experiences of nature. And the habitat and wildlife that gives the Whittier Narrows Natural Area its great value.

But as someone said, this isn't a democratic process.

It doesn't matter that the community you say you're trying to help is telling you--consistently--"We're not convinced" and "We don't want your watershed center" and "Don't waste our tax dollars" and "Why aren't you listening?"

There's something wrong when public servants decide the public doesn't matter.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Final discovery center EIR meeting this Saturday

The second and final public meeting on the San Gabriel River Discovery Center and its draft environmental impact report is scheduled for Saturday, July 18, 2 - 4 p.m., at South El Monte High School in South El Monte.

At the first meeting, held June 24, no speaker from the community supported the discovery center proposal. Most spoke in favor of protecting nature and the Whittier Narrows Nature Center.

The discovery center would destroy important wildlife habitat and the current nature center at Whittier Narrows Natural Area and replace them with what the EIR reveals is little more than a conference center for government bureaucrats and water agency officials.

The discovery center would require at least $30 million for construction alone. The San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority claims it has collected $10 million to date.

The unpopular watershed education center proposal has failed to attract a single private donation or foundation grant. All money contributed has come from public sources--tax dollars, state bonds and water bills.

If you're concerned about bureaucrats wasting your hard-earned tax dollars or about the destruction of nature and parks in your backyard, you should come to Saturday's EIR meeting and let the Discovery Center Authority know.

South El Monte High School is at 1001 N. Durfee Ave. in South El Monte. (Across the street from the Natural Area.)

The EIR public comment period ends Aug. 3.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Central Basin MWD raises price of water, cuts $1M internally -- continues support for Discovery Center

Why is Central Basin Municipal Water District (service area pictured at right) continuing its financial support for the proposed $30 million San Gabriel River Discovery Center at the same time that it's raising rates on its customers and making internal budget cuts?

The revenue report from the Discovery Center Authority's June 18 board report shows that Central Basin contributed $80,000 for fiscal year 2008/2009. And a table on the Discovery Center website shows that Central Basin has contributed at least $750,000 in total to the project.

This year's $80,000 from Central Basin is troubling in light of the water district board of director's approval last month of "a more than 100-percent increase in its surcharge that will be phased in over the next year," which was reported by the Whittier Daily News.

"This
is on top of an already approved 21-percent increase . . . from Metropolitan Water District that goes into effect Sept. 1, " writes journalist Mike Sprague.
"We can't understand the justification. The rates are excessive, unsubstantiated and inappropriate." -- Joe Serrano, Santa Fe Springs City Council
Central Basin is one of the four member agencies in the San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority, which is trying to build a controversial 18,230-square-foot watershed education and meeting center on the Whittier Narrows Natural Area.

But the rate hikes aren't the end of the story. Apparently, money is so tight at the water district, "
officials said they've made $1 million in internal budget cuts."

News of Central Basin's fee increase went over like the proverbial lead balloon with local officials.

The news story quotes
Santa Fe Springs Councilman Joe Serrano, among others: "We will have no choice but to raise our rates. We can't understand the justification. The rates are excessive, unsubstantiated and inappropriate."

Unpopular rate hikes, internal budget cuts--but Central Basin continues to throw money at the expensive, unnecessary and environmentally destructive Discovery Center.

Interesting priorities at Central Basin right now.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Long absent bird species seen in Whittier Narrows

A recent story in the Whittier Daily News highlighted the apparent return of some sensitive bird species to the Whittier Narrows.

A recent sighting of a yellow-billed cuckoo "has set off biologists and birders around the area and has brought new attention to the Whittier Narrows, and specifically a 4-mile stretch of the Rio Hondo," writes journalist Ben Baeder.

The bird, a relative of the woodpecker, had not been spotted
in the San Gabriel Valley since 1952, Baeder writes.

Birders have also spotted larger numbers of other sensitive species in recent years, including the endangered least Bell's vireo (pictured), the yellow-breasted chat and the yellow warbler.

The yellow-billed cuckoo, says the Center for Biological Diversity, "has declined precipitously throughout its range in southern Canada, the United States, and northern Mexico.

"The cause of the cuckoo's demise is the same threat facing most endangered species--habitat loss."


While the Bell's vireo species is declining across its range due to habitat degradation and cowbird parasitism, says the Audubon Society, the least Bell's vireo subspecies "is recovering with aggressive habitat protection and restoration."

The evidence of an apparent turnaround in the Whittier Narrows points to the importance of habitat preservation and restoration--and serves to highlight the threat posed to habitat and wildlife by the proposed San Gabriel River Discovery Center.

Biologist Dan Cooper, who spotted the cuckoo, spoke of the ecological importance of Whittier Narrows, much of which is a county Significant Ecological Area and which forms part of Audubon's Los Angeles Flood Control Basins Important Bird Area.

"Its very much a refuge," Cooper told the newspaper. "It's probably the best chance we have of seeing the cuckoos, turtles and other species that used to be pretty common."

Monday, July 6, 2009

County nature centers, beaches at three lakes closed Mondays due to budget cuts

The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday that county nature centers, including the Whittier Narrows Nature Center, and county-controlled beaches at three area lakes will be closed on Mondays due to a seven-percent budget cut for parks.

The Natural Area park will still be open to the public on Mondays.

Hugo Maldonado, the county's chief lake lifeguard, told the Times that, rather than eliminate any of the 225 lake lifeguard positions, officials reduced their hours by 20 percent.

"This is an unprecedented downturn in our economy and it's resulted in a significant decline in revenue for the county of Los Angeles," Maldonado said.

I remember some years ago, during another serious recession, when the county's response was to make significant cuts in services.

The clearest sign to me of those earlier cuts was the fact that my local branch of the county library system was open only one day per week. I don't remember how long that went on, but I remember it feeling like a long time.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think the current combination of budget and service cuts, tax increases and water rate increases casts serious doubt on the claim that no entry or parking fees would be charged at the San Gabriel River Discovery Center because the costs "would be fully supported by the Authority."

When other areas of Whittier Narrows charge for parking and county museums charge admission fees, visitors to a discovery center-dominated Natural Area shouldn't be surprised if they end up having to pay for what today the public enjoys for free.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Photos from a visit to the Natural Area

The Child Development Consortium of Los Angeles and photographer Lou Orr have graciously given the Friends permission to share photos from the April 1 visit of preschoolers from the Nueva Maravilla Child Development Center to the Natural Area.

The kids and their chaperon went on a walk through the Natural Area with docent Jim Odling and visited the nature center and its collection of snakes, lizards and other wildlife.

Nueva Maravilla is in East Los Angeles, and the Natural Area provides some of the most accessible nature for that community and others in eastern Los Angeles County.

More of Lou's photos from the visit are available on Flickr.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Community rejects discovery center at EIR meeting

Last week, community members and supporters of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area sent a clear message to the San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority:

"Don't build your $30 million, 18,000-square-foot regional watershed visitor center on our open space, our wildlife sanctuary, our center of outdoor education."


On June 24, the Discovery Center Authority held a public meeting at South El Monte High School to discuss the discovery center and its draft environmental impact report.

Of the 12 people who spoke during the oral comment period, not one spoke in favor of the discovery center.

Two people spoke of areas the EIR might have missed and said that public comments should be posted to the discovery center website.

The other 10 speakers offered sometimes sharp criticism of the project, its supposed objectives and many of the assumptions behind it.

People spoke of the importance to them of Whittier Narrows and the Natural Area when they were children.

Other said the Natural Area offered a unique experience to families and to school children, some seeing wildlife in the wild for the first time.

Some speakers said there was no sense in building a nature center on top of the very nature its supposed to teach about.

Another speaker said that the discovery center project threatened to destroy the local legacy of environmental conservation history in America.

And a few people spoke of the outsized costs of the project, the likely introduction of user fees and the failure to look at more economical alternatives for water education.

With so many arguments for protecting the Natural Area and preserving the current nature center, you'd think the discovery center would have no chance of advancing or of winning the approval and support of elected officials and government agencies.

But the project seems to proceed, in apparent contradiction to the will of the people. And thus the basis for the frustration expressed by another speaker becomes clear.

“Are you really listening to the public," she asked, "or is it just what the agencies want to do and not hear what the people say who live here?”

The public comment period for the discovery center EIR closes on Aug. 3.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Veteran of environmental campaigns to speak Sunday, ahead of this week's DEIR public meeting

Ray Williams, professor of biology and a veteran of successful environmental campaigns, will speak Sunday, June 21, on tackling environmental impact reports and will focus his comments on the San Gabriel River Discovery Center draft environmental impact report.

His talk comes just a few days before the first of two public meetings scheduled on the San Gabriel River Discovery Center DEIR, which was released June 5 and is in its 60-day public comment period.

Ray's talk is scheduled for 1 p.m. in the picnic area of the Whittier Narrows Nature Center. The Nature Center is at 1000 N. Durfee Ave., South El Monte, across from South El Monte High School. (Map)

The first public meeting on the discovery center DEIR is scheduled for Wednesday, June 24, 7 - 9 p.m., at South El Monte High School, 1001 N. Durfee Ave. (Map)

The second public meeting is scheduled for Saturday, July 18, 2 - 4 p.m., also at South El Monte High School.

Please join us in commenting on the problems with the discovery center and about alternatives that would deliver true benefits to the community while protecting the only wildlife sanctuary on the San Gabriel River.

The DEIR is available at http://discoverycenterauthority.org/env_doc/env_doc.html

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A strange model of environmental stewardship

For a project that is ostensibly designed to promote environmental stewardship, the San Gabriel River Discovery Center is pretty hard on the environment.

The project is planned for the Whittier Narrows Natural Area, the only wildlife sanctuary on the San Gabriel River, part of the Whittier Narrows Significant Ecological Area and part of an Audubon Society Important Bird Area. But the impact on such an environmentally important area was of little concern when it was selected as the site for the discovery center.

The summary of environmental impact (in the executive summary) states, "The EIR identifies potentially significant impacts requiring mitigation for Biological Resources, Cultural Resources, Hydrology and Water Quality, and Noise."
The Discovery Center Authority and its member water districts have achieved quite an irony. The project is intended to "deliver a program about all aspects of watershed education," but the first step in the project causes so much damage to the watershed that mitigation is required.
The Discovery Center Authority and its member water districts have achieved quite an irony. The project is intended to "deliver a program about all aspects of watershed education: geologic setting, natural history, water quality and conservation, human reliance on river resources, flood
management, and river restoration." But the first step in the project causes so much damage to the watershed that mitigation is required.

And California law now requires projects to look at their contribution to global warming. How does the discovery center, a project that we are told is to be a model of environmental design, do with regard to this issue? Again the executive summary: "the proposed project would contribute to a significant cumulative impact related to global climate change."
"The proposed project would contribute to a significant cumulative impact related to global climate change."
When your service range is 25 miles in all directions but your location isn't served by public transportation, and when you're expecting so much traffic that you have to quintuple the size of the parking lot (from 33 cars to 150 cars, two bus spaces to three), then it really doesn't matter how green your building is--you're still going to make an oversized contribution to global climate change.

The county's Significant Ecological Areas Technical Advisory Committee couldn't have been more right when it rejected the discovery center project, saying that "there is an irony in ripping out nature to make it available." And while it supported the project in theory, SEATAC was "concerned that built out education center is not actually the model of what it should be in respect and relation to nature."
"The entire building is a showplace for the water districts. Why should that be put in a bird sanctuary?"
The project makes little sense if you approach it from an environmentalist's stance. But when you read the EIR, it's hard to escape the sense that the discovery center is essentially a marketing tool and meeting center for the water districts.

Others have noticed this about the project too.

"The project has now grown into this enormous museum for the entire watershed, and the actual nature center part of it is completely gone," said Grace Allen, a member of the Friends and president of the Whittier Narrows Nature Center Associates, in a recent news story. "The entire building is a showplace for the water districts. Why should that be put in a bird sanctuary?"

A very good question.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Questions to ask when reviewing a draft environmental impact report

Ray Williams, professor emeritus of biology at Rio Hondo College and veteran of many successful efforts to protect threatened areas of the Southern California, provided the Friends this list of helpful tips.

While a draft environmental impact report may seem intimidating at first--the Montebello Hills Specific Plan DEIR certainly intimidated me--they cover a broad spectrum of areas. And even the most technical areas can be scrutinized by non-specialists.

Good, basic questions are important in bringing to light the flaws, inconsistencies and short cuts in a DEIR. As in sports, its important not to neglect the fundamentals.

The list:

1. What are the project's significant unavoidable impacts?

2. Do the alternatives addressed in the draft EIR deal with those impacts?

3. What significance thresholds are used for each impact category?

4. Do the significant thresholds reflect adopted local policies and/or criteria established by a regulatory agency?

5. Does the draft EIR gauge potential impacts against existing physical conditions?

6. Does the draft EIR address all of the environmental topics relevant to proposed project?

7. Does the technical information provided in the draft EIR support the document’s findings?

8. Did the draft EIR include discussion of environmental issues raised during the scoping phase and in responses to the Notice of Preparation?

9. Does the draft EIR adequately define the resources that might be impacted?

10. Does the draft EIR provide a clear line of reasoning in its conclusions related to impacts, their level of significance or non-significance, and the level of mitigation that would be achieved by proposed mitigations measures?

11. Does the draft EIR’s statement of project objective allow for a reasonable range of alternatives?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Discovery center draft environmental impact report released; 60-day comment period open

After two years of delays, the draft environmental impact report on the San Gabriel River Discovery Center was released Friday.

The release of the DEIR also signaled the opening of the 60-day public comment period, which ends on Aug. 3, 2009.

The report, nearly 900 pages in length, is available online at the Discovery Center Authority website.

It's also available in print at three Whittier Narrows area libraries:
  • South El Monte Library, 1430 N. Central Ave., South El Monte CA 91733 (Map)
  • El Monte Public Library, 3224 Tyler Ave., El Monte CA 91731 (Map)
  • Pico Rivera Public Library, 9001 Mines Ave., Pico Rivera CA 90660 (Map)
And the Discovery Center Authority has scheduled two public meetings, at which public comments on the DEIR will be accepted:
  • Wednesday, June 24, 7 - 9 p.m.
  • Saturday, July 18, 2 - 4 p.m.
Both meetings will be held at South El Monte High School, 1001 N. Durfee Ave., South El Monte CA. (Map)

If you'd like to comment on the DEIR, but aren't sure how to go about it, Tuesday I'll be posting a brief guide to "Questions to ask when reviewing a draft environmental impact report."

My suggestion is pick a topic (e.g., aesthetics, transportation and traffic, biological resources, cultural resources) that you feel comfortable reviewing or are interested in and just jump in.

But I'll get that guide posted in a couple of days.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

What's environmental education without the environment?


Louis Sahagun recently wrote a brief but great story on a program at Dorsey High School that has kids helping to try bring the cactus wren to the new Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook State Park.

The work they're doing includes restoration of cactus sage brush habitat and construction of artificial nests in an effort to bring back a bird that hasn't been seen in the area for a decade.

Sahagun writes that the work "part of an urban ecology campaign--organized by Dorsey, the Los Angeles Audubon Society and a local business, Earthworks Restoration Inc.--to transform selected inner-city youths into stewards of the environment."

But what really caught my attention were the views expressed by Stacey Vigallon, Los Angeles Audubon's director of interpretation:
"These students depend on the cactus wren for getting hands-on training to become informed citizens with an appreciation for a healthy environment and a green economy," she said. "The bird depends on them for habitat restoration and, in the not-too-distant future, votes on environmental issues crucial to its survival."
This is where Vigallon and others have it right--and the San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority has it all wrong.

They simply fail to see the value that a living, breathing, intact wildlife sanctuary has for the community, for children and for the future of environmentalism.

"If future generations lack experiences in nature," writes Erica Gies in a recent issue of Land & People, "the motivation to support environmental and conservation programs could falter."

This is not an attack on the discovery center as a concept, but a defense of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area and of an approach that keeps the focus where it belongs: on nature and firsthand experiences of nature.

Sadly, the government agencies and water districts behind the discovery center seem to view the Natural Area as only a wasteland, an empty lot that needs the improvements of man.

But we should take a moment to consider how nature might improve us and how through that lesson all life might benefit.

Biologist Robert Michael Pyle gets the last word on this matter: "What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never seen a wren?"

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Why sacrifice the Natural Area for a regional museum when the region's chockablock with 'em?

The San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority likes to argue that the communities around Whittier Narrows are underserved in the areas of environmental education.

How accurate is that claim?

The SRGDCA is planning a 25-mile service radius around the discovery center, so I decided to figure out what other nature, science and education-focused museums lie within 25 miles of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area. (Or, to look at it another way, what museums include Whittier Narrows in their own 25-mile service range.)

As I noted in the first post to this blog, the Aquarium of the Pacific and its new permanent watershed exhibit and education program, "Our Watersheds: Pathway to the Pacific," are within 25 miles of Whittier Narrows. (See accompanying graphic.)

The aquarium's "It all flows to me" program--available as a field trip or a mobile education offering--leads students "on a journey through their watershed from the mountains to the coastal ocean. . . . By exploring the link between watersheds, ground water and pollution, students will learn how they are part of the water cycle and discover how they can change their environment for the better."

All that without spending $30 million dollars, destroying wildlife habitat or robbing the community of its public parkland.

But what other museums can be found within 25 miles of South El Monte, Whittier, Montebello and the other communities around Whittier Narrows? Here's the list I was able to assemble:
And the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium is almost exactly 25 miles away.

Add to the above list the mobile water education program offered to many of the cities near Whittier Narrows through a partnership between Golden State Water Company and the Discovery Science Center, and its becomes clear that we who depend on the Natural Area for its outdoor education and recreation offerings already have access to a wonderful variety of museums focused on nature, science and kids.

The Natural Area offers the community what these other facilities cannot: firsthand experiences of the natural world; free access to the only wildlife sanctuary on the San Gabriel River; opportunities for low-impact recreation that entire families can take part in, from the youngest child to the beloved abuelita.

Why the Discovery Center Authority is blind to the jewel already in the community's possession is beyond me.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Commenting on an environmental impact report

The public comment period on the Montebello Hills Specific Plan draft environmental impact report closes Thursday.

Motivated by that quickly approaching deadline, I finally got off the dime, reviewed portions of the biological resources and recreation sections of the document, drafted some comments and submitted them to Montebello's director of planning and community development, Michael Huntley.

It was the sort of new experience that, afterwards, I was left thinking, "What was so scary about that?"

The document's 5,000-page length was intimidating, no doubt about it. But as members of the Sierra Club's Save the Montebello Hills Task Force recommended, I concentrated on those areas for which I had an affinity.

Focusing on those areas, I was able to draw conclusions that I hope will offer some assistance in the effort to shape the future of what is already important wildlife habitat and could be a true oasis of public open space for the city and surrounding communities.

It seemed to me that the current proposal depends too much on other areas in the region to support survival of species that might suffer from the 1,200-unit development planned for the hills. It fails to take into adequate account the serious development threats faced by the Puente-Chino Hills and the destruction wrought by last year's Freeway Complex fire.

It was also clear that, while the proposal acknowledges the nearly 200-acre shortage of parkland in Montebello, it does little to address this shortage and in fact creates obstacles to addressing the shortage in the future. The plan includes more than 300 acres of open space and reserve, but all except 16 acres of that land will be off limits to the public.

The Sierra Club alternative, on the other hand, would preserve and restore the hills as wildlife habitat while at the same time opening them to the community for what has come to be termed low-impact recreation and education--hiking, picnicking, outdoor education.

Reviewing and commenting on the EIR was a great experience. The sort of thing that proves you don't know what you can do until you try.

And I'm sure that, as Montebello Hills Task Force co-chair Margot Eiser said, it will turn out to have been great practice for the discovery center EIR.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

When a $3-million grant is not a grant

I'd been unable to understand, until a few days ago, how the San Gabriel River Discovery Center, a project that would destroy 10 or 11 acres of habitat within the only wildlife sanctuary on the San Gabriel River, qualified for $3-million grant from a state conservation agency. The answer, it appears, is that it didn't qualify, but the agency gave the money anyway.

As the California Public Resources Code states, the San Gabriel & Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy was created to, among other goals, "provide open-space, low-impact recreational and educational uses, water conservation, watershed improvement, wildlife and habitat restoration and protection, and watershed improvement within the territory." The Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, or RMC, even established a grant program to award state bond money to projects that meet these goals.

Clearly a project that replaces the current Whittier Narrows nature center with a building 15 times bigger, that nearly quadruples the size of the current parking lot, and that destroys some of the most accessible areas of a 70-year-old wildlife sanctuary would never be approved in the normal RMC grant process.

Perhaps that's why the discovery center didn't go through the normal RMC grant process.

As Belinda Faustinos, RMC executive officer, wrote in a letter accompanying documents that make up the discovery center grant (documents obtained through a request to the RMC):
"Please note that the San Gabriel River Discovery Center project was not included in the regular competitive grant process, so the grant guidelines . . . do not apply to this particular project."
Previously, I had wanted to think there was some better explanation for the apparent shenanigans behind RMC funding for the discovery center. But now I have to agree with the Claremont Insider:

"Voters thinking that they are protecting nature and open space approve billions of dollars in bonds to generate the funds the RMC uses for its grants, and then the money leaks out in dribs and drabs under false pretenses to the pet projects of Southern California's elected and non-elected officials. And they do it all with stunningly little accountability to the voters."

Friday, May 8, 2009

Montebello extends EIR comment period to 60 days on proposed Montebello Hills development

The Montebello City Council last night extended the public comment and review period to 60 days on a controversial 1,200-unit development proposed for the Montebello Hills, which provide important habitat for wildlife such as the threatened California gnatcatcher.

The fight over the plan proposed for the 488-acre property owned by Plains Exploration & Production Company is something I was only vaguely familiar with before joining the effort to save the Natural Area from becoming the site of the discovery center. But it’s an important battle, and one that stirs passions.

The plan, from what I’ve seen, would take the oil fields of the hills, one of the last remaining areas of open space in Montebello, and place a large housing development right in the middle of it. The remaining open space would form a horseshoe around the development.

There were many speakers, some for the project, more against it. A member of the Friends of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area made comments on behalf of the group.

He (this is your author taking himself out of the story) said that we’re concerned about the impact the planned development would have on the wildlife habitat and open space of the region, pointing out that the Montebello Hills, the Puente-Chino Hills and the San Gabriel Mountains (via the San Gabriel River) all meet at Whittier Narrows. He said too that the treatment the hills would receive in the current proposal isn’t habitat preservation, it’s ornamentation, background for the housing development.

Other speakers far more familiar with the project’s draft EIR, a dense 5,000-page behemoth, criticized the proposal in greater detail.

Especially impressive was the appearance of a staff lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council. The lawyer, Damon Nagami, also focused on the disruption the current proposal would cause to the habitat. The NRDC appears to favor a smaller development concentrated on the far west of the parcel, leaving the larger portion of the hills to connect directly with the Whittier Narrows.

The Sierra Club and its task force are working hard to defend the hills from further development, and they’ve offered an intriguing alternative to more homes. Their plan, available on the Montebello Hills Task Force Web site, would maintain the hills as wildlife habitat (adding wildlife corridors to connect with the narrows) and open them up to the community with a network of trails.

It conjures visions of a Griffith Park, but located in southeast Los Angeles, where members of our community, from the poorest to the most affluent, could enjoy a day out in the fresh air, with family and friends or alone.

It all makes me wonder why, when the benefits of access to outdoor recreation and education are so clear—especially when so close to home—we must fight so hard to save our remaining wild places and open spaces.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Wave newspaper gets it: discovery center’s environmental impacts aren’t its only costs

With the expected release later this month of the draft environmental impact report on the San Gabriel River Discovery Center, it makes sense that focus would naturally gravitate toward the project’s serious environmental flaws.

A project that would destroy some of the most accessible acres of the Natural Area, the discovery center would be 15 times bigger than the current nature center. It would more than triple the size of the current 40-car parking. And it would build an artificial wetland only a five-minute walk from the real San Gabriel River—a truly odd component, considering the project takes its name from the river.

But the environmental costs aren't the only costs, and people are starting to talk about the grave financial and social impacts the discovery center would have on the surrounding communities.

Los Angeles Times journalist Louis Sahagun started the conversation in the media with his recent Greenspace blog post. And this article in the LA Wave newspaper continues that conversation.

As Jim Odling, chair of the Friends of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area, explains in the article, the Discovery Center Authority is taking a huge risk with taxpayer and ratepayer dollars—the only dollars the project’s been able to attract in nearly 10 years of work—at the worst possible time.

With the recent tax increases and with more tax and water rate increases on the way, the DCA is risking a lot of our money on an oversized science museum recent history shows might never open its doors.

Just look at the failed Children’s Museum of Los Angeles and the failed Center for Water Education if you want a frightening vision of what’s in store for the Natural Area if the discovery center gets built.

In some ways, construction is the easy part. The real test comes when the yet-to-be-created nonprofit that's supposed to run the place tries to raise enough money to pay for maintenance, staffing and programming costs on an 18,230-square-foot LEED platinum building. (A platinum LEED rating might mean a “green” building, but it definitely means another kind of green: dollars spent to cover expenses.)

But none of this even begins to touch on another severe impact of the project: the social costs of replacing access to nature with an unnecessary, money-sucking project that has grown ever larger because, as the county Sanitation Districts’ Sam Pedroza said, “more and more agencies want to make sure their stories are told there.”

Clearly, community needs are taking a back seat to ambition.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Audubon Society's Owens Lake and Los Angeles Flood Control Basins Important Bird Areas

A recent LA Times article reported on a reborn Owens Lake and its almost overnight impact on birds.

The 100-square-mile lake near Sequoia National Park was turned into a salt flat after LA DWP diverted its waters into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. But since 2001, the utility “has flooded portions of the lake bed to control choking dust pollution.”

The result, Louis Sahagun writes, is “one of environmentalism's unintended successes: tens of thousands of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds roosting on a dust-control project.”

“In fall and spring, [the lake] now attracts about 50,000 birds, including roughly 500 snowy plovers, a shorebird listed as a species of special concern. Breeding on sandbars and in thatches of grass are colonies of yellow-headed blackbirds.”

Owens Lake has turned around so dramatically that Audubon California this year “designated Owens Lake one of the 17 most important bird areas in the state and a globally important wetlands in the making.”

In an earlier LATimes.com Greenspace blog post, Sahagun quotes IBA program director Andrea Jones on the goals of the program:

“Our main goal is to get them into the hands of federal and state wildlife agencies, state parks, land trusts and county planners. We created them to make both the public and agencies officially aware of where the largest numbers of birds are located. This information can help prioritize areas for conservation efforts, and raise awareness when it comes to proposed development projects and other activities."

The sad irony is that much closer to home, an important bird area is already in the hands of public agencies—and they’re putting development well ahead of conservation.

Whittier Narrows Natural Area and Recreation Area form part of the Audubon Society’s Los Angeles Flood Control Basins Important Bird Area. But it’s the Natural Area wildlife sanctuary that agencies and water districts have selected as the location for the San Gabriel River Discovery Center, threatening to tear up wildlife habitat and replace it with a massively increased human footprint.

That so poorly developed and environmentally thoughtless a proposal is even on the table doesn’t come as a surprise when one realizes that, as Sahagun points out, “very little of the sprawling Los Angeles Flood Control Basins area, which remains extremely vulnerable to development for soccer fields and golf courses, is even nominally managed for biodiversity.”

But perhaps we shouldn't lose hope. Perhaps the important bird area program serves best as starting point, a place where concerned citizens can begin conversations with agencies and officials and action toward conserving these important habitats and their wildlife.

Friday, April 17, 2009

LA Times Greenspace blog on Friends campaign to save Natural Area from discovery center project

The Whittier Narrows Natural Area and our efforts to shed light on the threat posed to it by the proposed San Gabriel River Discovery Center were the subject of an April 15 post to the Los Angeles Times’ Greenspace blog.

“Opponents of a proposed $30-million interpretive center at the Whittier Narrows wildlife sanctuary,” wrote journalist Louis Sahagun, “are ramping up their effort to block the project they fear would destroy a rare expanse of critical habitat in eastern Los Angeles County in order to enhance understanding of the San Gabriel River watershed.”

He continues: “The center ‘would destroy critical habitat, rob our diverse communities of open space, and shift focus away from firsthand experiences of nature,’ the [Friends media] backgrounder says. ‘And it would do so using public dollars to take public lands for a project the goals of which could be better served through less destructive and costly means.’”

Sahagun was referring to the media backgrounder we recently produced and distributed and which is available on the "Media room" page of the Friends website.

The Discovery Center Authority also has its say in the blog post. DCA project analyst Valerie Shatynski said the exhibit areas would be designed to help people understand the watershed and its role in the natural world and in daily life.

But that work’s already being accomplished by the Aquarium of the Pacific’s new permanent watershed exhibit, “Our Watersheds: Pathway to the Pacific.”

The DCA needs to answer the question why it wants to spend $30 million to build another major permanent watershed exhibit only 20 miles from the aquarium and which would compete with the aquarium's exhibit and educational programs.

Additionally, after a decade of work, the DCA’s only been able to raise a third of its construction fundraising goal—and all of that coming solely from our taxes and water bills.

And how do they expect to pay the high costs of maintaining, staffing and programming this giant water palace?

More questions than answers coming out of the discovery center right now.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

‘Preserving a building the ultimate act of recycling’

While the cartoon above doesn’t deal with green construction, it raises the question of what constitutes a truly green choice.

A big part of the Discovery Center Authority’s marketing campaign for its 18,230-square-foot science museum (nearly three times the size of Eaton Canyon Nature Center and 15 times bigger than the current Whittier Narrows Nature Center) is that the building will be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum-certified.

There’s no debating that LEED construction is sexy. But is it always the greenest choice? Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times recently and said not necessarily.

Writing about the very real environmental concerns that are causing people to consider tearing down older homes and rebuilding using newer energy-efficient technology to reduce carbon emissions, Moe says that “with significant improvements and retrofits, these structures [built in 1939 or before] could perform on a par with newer homes.”

He offers many suggestions for bringing an older home up to par, saying it all begins with an energy audit conducted by a local utility. This should help a homeowner identify where energy is being wasted and help him or her "make informed decisions about how to reduce energy use in the most cost-effective way."

His concluding comments have much to say to the question of whether the current Whittier Narrows Nature Center should be saved or replaced:

“Before demolishing an old building to make way for a new one, consider the amount of energy required to manufacture, transport and assemble the pieces of that [older] building. With the destruction of the building, all that energy is utterly wasted. Then think about the additional energy required for the demolition itself, not to mention for new construction.”

What doesn’t get much mention in the discovery center debate is that the current nature center is a direct link to the past of Whittier Narrows. I’m told the main building was constructed by joining a home and another structure that were spared when all the other homes in the narrows were demolished to turn the area into a flood control basin.

Moe writes, “Preserving a building is the ultimate act of recycling.” I’m certain he would agree that it can be an important act of memory as well.

---
Cartoon used by the Friends with kind permission of the artist.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Hansen Dam museum mess a preview of troubled future for San Gabriel River Discovery Center?

The LA Times, Daily News and La Opinion are all reporting the impending Chapter 7 bankruptcy and liquidation of the Children's Museum of Los Angeles (pictured above), a project a decade and tens of millions of dollars in the making.

The long road to failure for the Children’s Museum—and the similar path being followed by the Metropolitan Water District's Center for Water Education in Hemet, Calif.—should serve as cautionary tales for the San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority.

According to the Daily News, the board of directors of the Hansen Dam-located Children’s Museum “has accepted the recommendation of its attorneys to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy—liquidation—conceding the impossibility of raising enough money to repay loans and operate the museum.”

The museum had been banking on $10 million pledged by businessman Bruce F. Friedman to help reach the $58.5 million needed to open, but last month the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a lawsuit against Friedman for securities fraud and froze his company’s assets.

The Center for Water Education has avoided such sensational, headline-grabbing blows to its finances, but it’s had its own serious setbacks.

In 2007, MWD cancelled the lease on the $26-million project ($16 million coming from the water bills of MWD customers) and even had to kick in nearly $5 million more simply to cover debt on the museum. Today, the water ed center is closed, there's no mention of it on MWD's education Web page, and its fate is up in the air.

The Children’s Museum has a $22-million gap it needs to bridge if it wants to continue in existence—but the move toward bankruptcy shows that’s probably a bridge too far.

And, by the way, $22 million is just a bit more than the Discovery Center Authority needs to raise simply to get its museum built. Finding money for maintenance, salaries and programming is an entirely different obstacle the DCA will need to overcome.

What’s going to happen to the 57,000-square-foot Children’s Museum? That’s up in the air. City Councilman Richard Alarcon said Los Angeles might end up owning the building—appropriate since it was city tax dollars that largely paid for its construction—and it might become an educational center of some sort.

But that’s not what taxpayers paid for, is it? And with the poor economy and the difficult path these projects follow, Southern California might end up with a trifecta of buildings that are nature-oriented only in so far as they form albatrosses around the necks of taxpayers.

---
NOTE: Read more about the Children's Museum in tardigrade's June 9, 2008 post "It's always something isn't it?" at the Bug's Eyes blog.

Friday, April 3, 2009

MORE! Erosion Control Blankets at Whittier Narrows Wildlife Sancturay


OH! I forgot..... One other issue with Erosion Control Blankets rolled out and now embedded with weeds and all over the Sanctuary, is that the 'green' that you see is a dye. Dyes of this color are for marking places to indicate that something has been 'laid' down which is either a pesticide or a herbicide.

Questions of the dye itself have been raised. What is its toxicity? People who work at the Nature Center do not know whether it is toxic or not or, won't talk about it... But, what IS seen, by docents and guests, are animals running over the material. Questions about the safety of the animals, because of the Blankets, have been raised but bodies of animals tangled in the plastic netting have not yet been found.

As I have mentioned, the Blankets have been sprayed with a dye - UGLY! - And now, we have proof that animals are ingesting the material.

VOILA'

Dye colored coyote feces. Notice, you cannot 'see' the fecal matter, the brown stuff, that is. Could the bagged feces, be digested? All that you see is the netting encasing the partially digested material. Consider if you swallowed a plastic bag, how well would you be over time? How much nutrition would you receive from the food you eat? And, could this stuff kill you? By plugging the up plumbing?

Why would the agency, which is supposed to know about, and care for the open space, the plants, the animals with our tax money, put this stuff down on the ground in a wildlife sanctuary? Was it really ignorance? Malice?

Think about it...

What's THAT STUFF!!???



This is Grace Allen at the Whittier Narrows. She has worked there for quite a number of years as a docent. The day I took this picture, she said she did not want to take the children out on the walks anymore. Her eyes were filled with tears. The Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation Department said there were too many weeds (mustard, specifically) and so they were going to eradicate them.

There are ways to eradicate 'weeds' that are successful but, most are not so successful. And, some methods are just plain stupid. This is a story about stupidity.

LET"S START WITH ANOTHER STORY, FOR EXAMPLE...


Invasive weeds are just that... invasive. Once they take hold, it's nearly impossible to remove or extricate from the environment. The first introduction does not mean a non-native CAN establish themselves into a new habitat, because it usually takes several introductions and the right conditions for a 'weed' (plant and animal) to become part of the terrain. Insects, snakes, rats, fish, cats, goats, pigs, cows, dogs, birds can be 'weeds' in sensitive places all over the world, and thanks to humans.

Just last week in Australia, they went after a toad - which they introduced ON PURPOSE (!) to save their sugar industry from ruin in 1935. (Cane Toads, an Unnatural History, by Stephanie Lewis, Dolphin/Doubleday, 1989) The sugar cane, (Saccharum officinarum) really a weed introduced as a 'crop', that can be an important cash crop (like it was for Cuba) was devastated by a beetle.... a beetle that was a native to Australia on the weeping fig trees. But, because of the high sugar content of the sugar cane, S. officinarum was FAR MORE enticing. The native beetles became the pest. And, in 1930 the population of the native beetles peaked and then the farmers went to the government for help; the Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations in Brisbane. The farmers tried fumigation and other toxic stuff... Nothing worked!

Well, a famous entomologist of the time, wrote a paper about the special wonderful qualities of the Bufo marinus, or what is now called, the cane toad, to eating lots of beetles. Well, as the story goes, the Australians 'planted' lots and lost and lots of toads BUT found that they did not eat the beetles! like they were told they would!!!... In fact, they found the toads to be ineffectual at eating the beetles..... It was something about beetles flying and toads didn't.... But, the toad ate everything else. And those animals that ate the toads died of the toxins excreted by the toads.... Poor Australia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cane_toad)... and then there were the rabbits... (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbits_in_Australia)

WHAT HAS CANE TOADS HAVE TO DO WITH WEEDS AT WHITTIER NARROWS????

Well, what the above story deomonstrates is that we - humans .....and even humans with degrees, publications and POSITIONS in agencies like... LOS ANGELES COUNTY, PARKS AND RECREATION can be really really stupid.


CHECK THIS OUT...

Here we have the area around the walk way where Grace and other docents take the little children through the Nature Center. There are weeds... but then, again, weeds happen when you have humans around. But, under Grace's hand, there are very few and the natives are quite happy and fecund.



Here is the area behind Grace (that made her cry) form June 2, 2008, covered with this stuff, called, Erosion Control Blankets.



Further up the trail... on June 2, 2008.



This next image was taken August 11, 2008... notice the little sprouting weeds under the blankets?



On September 15, 2008 behind the parking lot.... evil things started to push up from the soil!!!!

OH!!! NO!!!! (Just like in the movies don't you think?)


Then in October 20, 2008 we realized STINGING NETTLES were pushing up through the netting and the EVIL MUSTARD was coming up around the sides!!!! AHHHHHHH!!!!



By March 14, 2009 ALL OF HADES BROKE OUT!!!!



Now, after lots of little children walking past this really ugly stuff and trying NOT to to touch the nettles (which raise a blistery bumpy rash especially on tender skin of children!!!) (YEAH!! RIGHT!! Go ahead and try to stop them from touching the horrible plant!), 'regular' people started asking,.. "what IS that STUFF? AND WHY WAS the COUNTY PARKS AND RECREATION DOING THIS????

So, to answer EVERYONE"S QUESTIONS ... do you know what they did? I bet you can guess.... They made sign. No, they made several. So typical.



... And they placed them where all the little children and their teachers would walk...



I bet these signs were expensive....
Stupid. FUNNY! But, stupid.