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Life on the Dunes : Scientist Studies Plants, Animals on Sandy Area Near LAX

Times Staff Writer

No one knows exactly when, but the diamondback rattlesnakes packed up and left the Airport Dunes within the last 50 years. So, too, did the harvest mice, kangaroo rats, toads and salamanders.

And the few jack rabbits that remain are having a hard time of it as they battle a family of hungry red foxes that have made their home near some acacia trees.

“We’ve already lost much of what was here,” Rudi Mattoni said the other day as he stood on the dunes, which lie off the west end of the runways at Los Angeles International Airport.

“If we don’t do something,” said Mattoni, “we’re going to lose it all.”

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Study of Plants, Animals

For several months, Mattoni, 60, a geneticist who holds a doctorate in biology from UCLA, has been engaged in what he and airport officials say is the first full-fledged study of the plant and animal life along the 302-acre dunes. The dunes are best known as the main habitat of the El Segundo Blue butterfly, which is listed by the federal government as an endangered species.

Hired by the airport, which owns the dunes, and assisted by data collected by scientists more than four decades ago, Mattoni is attempting to determine not only what presently lives on the dunes, but also what may have existed there before urbanization began to take its toll.

At the same time, he finds himself at odds with those environmentalists who believe that the airport’s 17-year-old plan to build a golf course and nature preserve on the dunes should be scrapped in favor of leaving the area as open space.

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Although he once agreed with these environmentalists, even going so far as to write a letter to federal wildlife authorities espousing the viewpoint that the area should be left alone so the dunes’ natural habitat could re-establish itself, he now says the airport’s proposal is the most practical one because of the nonindigenous vegetation that has cropped up on the dunes.

No Cost to Taxpayers

The airport’s plan “is acceptable to a great deal of people,” Mattoni said. “And it isn’t going to cost the taxpayers anything.”

To the average person, the dunes would hardly appear to be a gold mine of plant and animal life that Mattoni and others have long maintained it is. Nor, for that matter, would the dunes seem a desirable place to spend a leisurely afternoon.

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For starters, there is the omnipresent roar of jet aircraft taking off from the airport. Then there are the cracked concrete streets, fire hydrants and other ruins of the neighborhood that was there before the airport bought and removed the homes to establish a clear zone for overflying aircraft.

But the area is the last large parcel of a dune system that once stretched from Point Conception south into Mexico, environmentalists point out. And even though major portions of the dunes have been altered by man over the years, an estimated 39 of the 302 acres has been left untouched, Mattoni said.

Effect of Plan Unclear

Mattoni began his study last May 18, months after the California Coastal Commission refused to give the airport permission to build the proposed golf course. The commission said it was unclear what effect the golf course would have on the rare butterfly, as well as other plant and animal species.

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Airport planner Michael Feldman said a team of scientists initially helped to coordinate the $160,000 study, which is being carried out by Mattoni’s company, Agresearch. The same scientists will be called upon to review Mattoni’s findings before the airport takes them to the coastal commission, probably in a year, to seek approval for its development plan.

Airport officials say that, with five golf courses having closed in the general area in as many years, building a course on the land would fill a need.

Mattoni said he has divided the dunes into 60 equal-sized parcels. Workers are in the process of combing each parcel, recording all plant and animal life found. Bug traps have been set up at various spots along the dunes to help determine what insects live there. An entomologist works one night a week, catching moths attracted to an ultraviolet light.

Thus far, Mattoni said, workers have identified 25 animal species possibly unique to the dunes, including the 2-inch-long Santa Monica Dunes moth and a type of weevil. He thinks the El Segundo Blue butterfly has gotten too much attention, that many people do not realize how many very unusual creatures--which are not officially classified as as endangered--may live in such a small area.

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Protection Planned

Under the airport’s plan, if any endangered plant or animal species is uncovered in the course of the study, it would either be relocated to the area earmarked for preservation, or allowed to remain where it is found.

Based on comparisons with studies done in the late 1930s by scientists from the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, the number of plants and animals living on the dunes has dwindled considerably over the years, Mattoni said.

Preliminary findings show that of the 14 mammals, including the kangaroo rat, that once inhabited the dunes, 80% are gone. Four types of amphibians, including tree frogs and salamanders, that once lived on the dunes no longer can be found. The rattlesnake and at least four other types of reptiles out of 13 have disappeared.

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Also, of the 70 or so native plants that once grew on the dunes, 30% are believed to have vanished in the last five decades or so, Mattoni said. In their place have come hearty, nonindigenous plants such as ice plant and acacia trees that threaten to squeeze out the natural plants.

Airport officials last month received permission from the Coastal Commission to destroy some of the plants. The airport argued that the plants are crowding out the type of buckwheat that the El Segundo Blue Butterfly feeds on. About 1,000 of the thumbnail-sized butterflies live on the dunes, Mattoni said.

Reversion Unrealistic

Because of the ice plant and other non-native vegetation that thrives on the dunes, Mattoni said, it is unrealistic to believe that the dunes would revert to their natural state if left undisturbed. Moreover, he estimated that it would cost $10 million or more to take out the vegetation and perform the other work necessary to achieve such a goal.

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For those reasons, Mattoni said, he supports the airport’s plan to set aside 80 acres as a habitat conservancy, or open area, and an additional 12 acres as a preserve where scientists could work and practice restoration techniques.

The remaining 210 would be used for the golf course and other recreational facilities that, in turn, would generate the money needed to maintain the conservancy, he said.

Mattoni said it would not surprise him if critics of the golf course plan question the objectivity of his study. He shrugs off the possibility, however.

“Environmentalists have to be practical these days,” he said.

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Argues for Open Space

Sallie Davison, president of the Friends of the Dunes, a Playa del Rey group, argues that the entire area should be left as open space. Her group believes that the survival odds for the dunes’ remaining species will decrease if only a small portion of the area is set aside for them.

Davison’s view is shared by Julian Donahue, an entomologist with the county Museum of Natural History. “Once you put a golf course in there, you are creating a very artificial environment. And once you have done that, you have eliminated other options,” Donahue said.

“The area has been nickeled and dimed to death already,” Donahue said. “It just keeps getting whittled and whittled away.”

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