Botanist W. Walton Wright was a UC Riverside student about 15 years ago when he first read of the battle to preserve Torrance’s Madrona Marsh, the only rain-fed wetland in the South Bay.
“Madrona sounded like an interesting place to lead a field trip,” said Wright, who earned pocket money leading nature walks. “But when I got there it was all behind a fence and you couldn’t get in.”
The fence is still there, but today Wright has no problem getting into the marsh.
Last month, the city hired Wright, 49--a student of the wild burro, the fringe-toed sand lizard, the great blue heron and the flat-tailed horned lizard--to be the city’s first full-time naturalist to oversee the preservation of the marsh.
Wright, who has a master’s degree in botany and is completing a Ph.D. from the University of California, Riverside, was selected from a field of 15 after a rigorous written test and oral grilling by a panel of naturalists from Long Beach, Huntington Beach and the Los Angeles City Zoo.
In his new job, Wright will still be going on nature walks, as coordinator of educational programs focused on the marsh.
For more than eight years, as environmentalists pushed to get the city to pay more attention to the marsh, city officials have been talking about the need for a naturalist to watch over it. However, they were frustrated by difficulties in acquiring the marsh and getting the naturalist’s position through the budget process.
The man who was chosen--dressed in faded blue jeans, running shoes, an aged white sweater, and a pair of spectacles hanging from his neck--seemed at home among the grass, willows, and the tules of Madrona Marsh during a recent interview.
Wright expects to spend many hours studying the home of nearly 140 species of birds, a small pack of foxes and an occasional rabbit, as well as mice, snakes, lizards and frogs.
“The marsh has more tree frogs than I’ve seen anywhere,” he said. “I mean there are just thousands of frogs.”
Wright said his first priority is to supervise the cleanup, starting with large pieces of concrete and dried tar, which have been left from a past oil drilling project. He also wants to get rid of trash that has accumulated around the perimeter of the marsh, and remove hundreds of yards of rusted chain-link fence, which runs within the perimeter.
Over the long term, Wright said he will work to create permanent walking trails throughout the marsh and improve the landscaping around the perimeter by adding new fencing, trees and shrubbery. In addition, the city is in the process of completing a sidewalk, bicycle trail and new perimeter fence.
Before coming to Torrance, Wright worked for a year as a naturalist for the U.S. Forestry Service at Angeles National Forest during his college days. In 1978, he began a decade of working as a wildlife and environmental consultant, mostly for government agencies.
He examined the impact of wild burros on vegetation at the Naval Weapons Center, China Lake, in the Mojave Desert. He studied the habitat of the fringe-toed sand lizard in the Cochella Valley. In 1983, he designed a rehabilitation plan for a colony of great blue herons that had lost their nesting place to a U.S. Navy steam plant in San Diego. In 1984, he plotted the habitat of the flat-tailed horned lizard in El Centro.
“Having taken a wide diversity of classes in school--and just my interest--has enabled me to do a lot of different type of projects,” he said.
Wright, who will earn $28,000 a year, said he intends to continue consulting.
Gene Barnett, the city’s parks and recreation director, first recommended that the city hire a naturalist to run and maintain the 43-acre wetland in August, 1981. But it was not until September, 1986, that the city gained ownership of the land.
“The process is the process and we’ll take (the naturalist) when we can get him,” Barnett said.
Mayor Katy Geissert said the position was placed on the city’s budget last year, and it has taken several months to add the new position to the staff. “It’s the system,” she said in explaining why it has taken so long.
Geissert added that she hopes that hiring Wright will help the city move more swiftly toward improving conditions at the marsh. “He appears to be very well qualified,” she said. “He is philosophically dedicated to the marsh.”
For several years, representatives of Friends of Madrona Marsh, an environmental group dedicated to the preservation of the marsh, have been critical of the city for failing to hire a naturalist.
“I would say that we were, at the very least, anxious,” said Adrian Fraley, president of Friends of Madrona Marsh.
Fraley, who expressed satisfaction with the city’s choice, said she is confident that her group will work well with Wright, because he was a member of the group’s board of directors from 1979 to 1985.
“His background leads us to feel confident . . . to have someone in the city who knows the marsh and knows what the marsh needs,” she said.
The marsh was obtained by the city under a 1983 agreement with the developers of Park Del Amo, a massive residential and office project adjacent to the marsh. In the agreement, the developer won the right to build 1,482 residential units and 850,000-square-feet of office space in exchange for donating 34 1/2 acres of marshland and selling an additional 8 1/2 acres to the city.