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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Hollywood Bulldozes Wetlands

Air Date: Week of

The last significant stretch of open space in the Los Angles basin is about to go under the spade. Steven Spielberg wants to build a new studio on the Ballona Wetlands, and developers have planned a new city with 13,000 condos. Community activists are deeply divided about the best way to protect the wetlands: some advocate a compromise for a partial restoration, others are fighting every inch of development. Celeste Wesson reports.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Los Angeles is a city choked with cars, smog, and a shortage of natural space. And our lead story this week is about a conflict over one of the last, biggest undeveloped pieces of real estate in that city. A huge swath of property near the Santa Monica Bay is slated to become home to a major new development called Playa Vista. But the property is already home to the Ballona wetlands, one of the few remaining wetlands in southern California and an important stop for migratory wildlife along the Pacific Flyway.

The conflict is not just between environmental advocates and developers. It's also about a split among the city's activist groups, over when to compromise and when to hold the line on new development. From Los Angeles, Celeste Wesson reports.

WESSON: If you've ever heard of the Ballona wetlands, or the Playa Vista development, it's probably because movie mogul Steven Spielberg plans to build his DreamWorks studio there. Activists have made him the villain of their campaign to stop the huge development.

WOMAN: Whoa! It's gonna be bigger than Ben Hur.

WOMAN 2: You mean bigger than ET!

WESSON: In this street theater performance the Spielbergian character, a woman dressed in a shiny red coat, helps strangle a Ballona wetlands frog.

WOMAN: Dum ... dum ... dum ...

WOMAN 2: Good rope.

WOMAN 3: Gore! Blood! Yes!


WESSON: DreamWorks calls the activist campaign a fake publicity gimmick. The developer accuses the activists of lying, because the studio site is more than a mile inland from the Federally-recognized wetlands. The harshness of the accusations in both directions reflects how high the stakes are in the battle over Ballona.


To get a sense of the scope of the developer's plans, look down from the Westchester bluffs, between Venice Beach and the Los Angeles airport. Your first impression is of that rare thing in the heart of the city: open space, more than 1,000 acres of it. All of it once belonged to Howard Hughes, and where Hughes Aircraft once stood at the eastern inland end, DreamWorks will build its studio. To the west lie about 250 scruffy lowland acres, which developers say they'll restore as wetlands. In between, where far below bulldozers are scraping the red earth, will be the core of the Playa Vista development: 13,000 new condos and apartments, 2-1/2 million square feet of commercial space, a new marina. All designed, say the developers, to fight sprawl and encourage community. To understand why some environmental activists want to stop this development, you need to get closer to the ground.

(Bird calls)

VAN DE HOOK: You're hearing that call? It is a black-bellied plover. There it is again. These birds have thousands of miles to go to the Arctic tundra soon, and there's a lot of communication now that's developing, and you can see ...

WESSON: Roy Van De Hook and Marcia Hanscom, from the Coalition United to Save All of Ballona, walk along Ballona Creek. It's undeniably a troubled urban wetland. The creek is sheathed in concrete. The rumble of jets is constant. There's so little saltwater that some endangered species have abandoned the wetland. But still, there's a salty breeze and birds are everywhere: grebes, mergansers, white pelicans.

This is in the heart of the Pacific Flyway, where the birds migrate. Thousands of species need this to survive, and we've lost 95% of our coastal wetlands in California. So we need every square inch. Here we have the largest development in the history of the City of Los Angeles bringing 13,000 new condos, 6 million square feet of office space, and a 28% increase in traffic on one of the busiest freeways in the nation.

WESSON: Hanscom wants to halt the development entirely, and restore the whole 1,000 acres as natural habitat, letting the saltwater back in, leaving the high ground natural so birds can forage. Elevating 2 existing broad boulevards onto suspension bridges. It won't be easy to realize this dream of stopping Playa Vista and saving all of Ballona. The developers have plenty of money and political clout. Furthermore, they already have promised to restore one third of this land, a plan that other environmental activists support.

A little history: the fight to save Ballona goes back 20 years, when the heirs of Howard Hughes proposed a massive development here. For 12 years a group of activists called The Friends of Ballona fought them, sued them, and finally, 9 years ago, won an out of court settlement. As part of the deal, the owners agreed to trim back the development and to spend $13 million to restore a third of the property as a wetlands ecosystem. Not too long after, the Coalition to Save All of Ballona formed, accusing the Friends of Ballona of selling out. But Friends president Ruth Lansford says her group is simply pragmatic, and the coalition unrealistic.

LANSFORD: Nothing's wrong with trying to save all of Ballona, if you can come up with the money to do it. That would be great with us. They talk about all this money being available from government and so on and so forth. It's just not true.

WESSON: The hard reality, adds Lansford, is that the developers have no intention of selling the land. The Coalition, meanwhile, has filed several lawsuits, and one has been successful in stopping work at Playa Vista, albeit on wetlands restoration instead of buildings, pending a more thorough environmental review. The Friends -- they're the ones who have the settlement with Playa Vista, think the Coalition's lawsuit is a disaster for the wetlands, because it delays restoration work. In their settlement they won a continuing voice in the restoration. Their consultant, Michael Josselyn, is confident that they've hammered out a plan that will bring Ballona back to life. However, he's worried about time.

JOSSELYN: I think all of us who've looked at Ballona wetlands over the years realize that as years pass, the diversity within the wetland begins to decline, to a point where we're not going to be able to restore it as successfully as we would if we had started it 10 years ago, or 20 years ago. Every time we lose a species because of some condition that's getting worse out there, it's much more difficult to get that species back.

WESSON: The Coalition, however, cites another scientist to buttress their campaign to stop all the development on the land. Southern California wetlands expert Joy Zedlar says the wetlands are so degraded that native species will have to be reintroduced anyway. Zedlar says that in general, there are bigger obstacles to successful restoration than time.

ZEDLAR: I think that it would be a mistake to give up the potential for increased area by arguing that we have to do something right now. It is quite late in the game, but allowing it to get a little bit later will pay off if it means we can have a larger, functioning system. So I wouldn't trade area for an immediate short-term fix.

WESSON: In coming months various courts and politicians and agencies will try to untangle all these competing arguments as they make decisions that will affect the fate of the Ballona wetlands. The developer insists that none of it will stop Playa Vista. They refused to be interviewed for reports like this one that focus on environmental concerns. Instead, they try to reach the public directly, through an expensive PR campaign. They argue that Playa Vista will not destroy pristine land. President Peter Denniston spoke with local radio station KCRW last year.

DENNISTON: People lose perspective that of the 1,087 acres here, if you looked at the property, the portion of the property that's undisturbed, that wasn't paved, that wasn't built on, that wasn't filled, that wasn't farmed, it's less than 185 acres.

WESSON: The Friends of Ballona, because of their compromise with Playa Vista, need the development to go forward if they are to achieve their goal: getting the company to restore 300 acres of wetlands at Ballona. Ruth Lansford.

LANSFORD: If you do make compromises that you think you can live with, that the wetland can live with more importantly, then you have an opportunity to keep influencing it all the way through. Which is what I think we achieved.

WESSON: Their rivals at the Coalition say times have changed since the Friends compromise. That now there is more public and government interest in saving wetlands and open space. Besides, says Marcia Hanscom, it's not her role to settle for anything less than all of Ballona.

HANSCOM: First of all, I don't think it's ever the job of an environmentalist to compromise. We're here to advocate for the natural environment, and we've already compromised so much. If we were at 50% of our wetlands lost, then maybe I'd say okay, well, we can lose another few acres here or there. In California we've lost 91% of our wetlands. I don't see how we can compromise any more.

(Footfalls through brush)

WESSON: On a sunny morning at the dunes by the edge of the Ballona wetlands, just a few blocks from the bay and the beach, a group of volunteers for the Friends are stacking dried branches of a non-native shrub that has invaded the wetlands.


WESSON: The lupin is in bloom. In the distance the elegant egrets stalk their prey. If you squint, you can wish away the gas storage pumps and roads and telephone poles, and glimpse what fuels the passion that has fired 20 years of efforts to save Ballona. You cannot see the bulldozers from here, so it's possible to imagine natural habitat restored for miles in front of you. And perhaps this is the moment to make it happen. But the bulldozers are at work, if out of sight. So it's easier to imagine just the lowland here, at the west end of the property, restored. With a whole new city sprung up just behind it. For Living on Earth, I'm Celeste Wesson in Los Angeles.



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