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.