With its coastal, desert, and alpine landscapes, Los Angeles County has a natural diversity almost unequaled in the world. In recognition, and under pressure from the courts, officials a decade ago created a network of “Significant Ecological Areas” to save remnants of that rich natural heritage.
Ranging from austere desert buttes and ancient oak savannahs to deep canyons, coastal dunes and wetlands, the SEAs were selected for their value as habitat and migration corridors for wildlife, or as strongholds for threatened plants, animals and birds.
The 61 SEAs were mostly privately owned, but the county’s 1980 General Plan made it official policy to protect them from incompatible development and to try to acquire those most threatened.
Since then, the SEAs have suffered from obscurity and neglect, an investigation by The Times has found. SEAs have been nibbled by development and with other open space dwindling, are under enormous pressure from big housing and commercial projects, proposed roads and even garbage dumps.
One area alone--the Palo Comado SEA in Agoura--is targeted by four residential and commercial projects. A proposed project of 1,900 homes and a golf course would cover 300 acres of an SEA in Valencia. And at the edge of the Ballona Creek SEA near Marina del Rey, a proposed city-within-a-city called Playa Vista is envisioned with 11,750 housing units and parking for 25,000 cars.
“I think the SEAs are struggling to survive,” said Tim Thomas, a biologist and member of a county advisory committee on the SEAs. “We’re . . . getting a wave of requests to develop in SEAs, to use SEAs to. . .put trash in and to put houses on, and these things are all incompatible with the intent of the designation of the SEAs.”
But Dave Vannatta, an aide to County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, said the SEAs have been reasonably protected, and that development within them “has been compatible with the resource.”
Don Knabe, an aide to supervisor Deane Dana, said the supervisors rely on county planning staff for advice on land use matters, adding that that he was not aware of any controversy concerning the SEAs.
Los Angeles County is not solely in charge of the SEAs’ fate. Some are within municipal boundaries, where county land-use regulations do not apply.
Still, had the county made the SEAs a priority, development conflicts would have been reduced. But management of the SEAs has been a serious failure, interviews and public records show. Consider:
* The county did not fulfill the commitment made a decade ago “actively search for funding mechanisms at all governmental levels” to purchase SEAs. The proposed county parks bond issue that failed at the polls Nov. 6 would have provided the first funds to purchase SEAs.
* County planning officials have not monitored development in SEAs, and don’t know which areas are intact or degraded. Without such basic data, informed decisions on new development plans in SEAs are impossible. Yet county supervisors have turned down requests for funds to study the status of the SEAs.
* The county itself is a threat to SEAs. For example, county transportation plans call for eventual extension of Thousand Oaks Boulevard through the Palo Comado SEA in Agoura, an expanse of grassy hills and stately oaks that support deer, bobcats, coyotes, and golden eagles. The county also has declared three canyons in SEAs in the Santa Susana and Santa Monica Mountains to be suitable sites for future trash dumps. “If we take a so-what attitude towards the SEAs, we’re taking a so-what attitude towards the . . . ecosystems of the rest of the world, and the ecosystems are what support our lives,” said Dick Friesen, a biologist and consultant who chairs the Significant Ecological Area Technical Advisory Committee, or SEATAC, a panel of biologists that advises the county on development in SEAs.
“If we can’t retain the SEAs in Los Angeles County, where there’s a big population base and a big economic base to do it,” it will be impossible to do in poorer parts of the world, he said.
Even when portions of SEAs have been preserved, it has required big concessions to developers. Consider two recent agreements that have been hailed as environmental triumphs.
In one case, Los Angeles airport officials agreed to preserve 200 acres of the El Segundo Dunes SEA west of Los Angeles International Airport, while developing a golf course on 100 other acres.
In the other case, environmentalists and developers settled years of litigation over the Ballona Creek SEA, which includes one of Southern California’s last surviving tidal wetlands. The developers agreed to preserve and help restore about 270 acres of the wetlands. In return, environmentalists agreed not to fight plans for the huge Playa Vista development overlooking the preserve, which is to include 11,750 apartment and condominium units, 2,400 hotel rooms and 5.7 million square feet of office and retail space.
Other SEAs are also threatened.
Above Granada Hills, Browning-Ferris Industries is trying to expand its Sunshine Canyon landfill into more than 500 acres of the Santa Susana Mountains SEA, a move that would wipe out thousands of trees and redraw the SEA map to delete that portion.
Another plan calls for development of two golf courses on more than 600 acres of the Tonner Canyon SEA near Diamond Bar.
West of Lancaster, the proposed California Springs development--5,700 acres and 21,000 homes--would encroach on the Joshua Tree Woodland and the Fairmont and Antelope Buttes SEAs.
Piecemeal development has pecked away at the Kentucky Springs SEA south of Palmdale, a swath of rugged foothills where a distinct subspecies of great basin sage grows in unusual abundance. The northern part of that SEA has been damaged by houses and four wheel-drive traffic, according to Asenath Rasmussen, a biochemist and research consultant who recently visited the area. The northern part has been “altered so dramatically that it’s not a continuously functioning community anymore,” she said.
Like the agreement on the Ballona wetlands, the SEA network grew out of a citizens lawsuit. In 1975, a group calling itself the Coalition for Los Angeles Planning in the Public Interest won a lawsuit against the county over deficiencies in the county’s General Plan, including lack of adequate open space protection.
As a result, the county had to rewrite the General Plan and improve its open space policies. The SEAs were designated by consultants whose report called for preserving the SEAs in “as near a pristine condition as possible.” A few uses--such as passive recreation and nature study--should be allowed, but “residential, agricultural, industrial and commercial developments” would damage native vegetation and “are clearly incompatible,” the report said.
Saving SEAs “would inevitably require acquisition of areas by Los Angeles County,” the report said.
The General Plan diluted these conclusions in substance and tone. It did not rule out residential development in SEAs, for example.
Still, the plan declared it county policy “to preserve the County’s significant ecological resources and habitat areas in as viable and natural condition as possible.” And an accompanying document pledged that the county would seek funds to buy SEAs.
But the timing could not have been worse for a costly new environmental program. In 1978, the tax-slashing Proposition 13 cut deeply into county budgets.
Moreover, the year the General Plan was adopted, 1980, was also the year Mike Antonovich and Deane Dana joined incumbent Pete Schabarum on the Board of Supervisors, forming a conservative, pro-development majority that receives substantial campaign contributions from development interests.
A 1980s building boom coincided with a steady erosion of county planning staff, making it more difficult to study the impact of development on open space. The county Department of Regional Planning saw its staffing dwindle from 212 employees in 1980 to about 150 today, department figures show.
Moreover, the supervisors did not create a fund to buy SEAs. Two other agencies--the National Park Service and Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy--did buy some tracts in the Santa Monica Mountains that included SEAs. But critics, including some members of Congress, said the supervisors at times were more hindrance than help. By “upzoning” land in scenic areas--allowing developers to build more homes than previous zoning provided--the supervisors made acquisition more expensive and difficult for other agencies, the critics said.
“The county should be condemned . . . not because they haven’t come up with the money themselves, but because they haven’t cooperated with” park agencies that had funds, said Carlyle W. Hall Jr., the Los Angeles attorney who filed the 1973 suit that voided the General Plan.
Sherry Teresa, a wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game and formerly its Los Angeles wildlife unit manager, said high-ranking fish and game officials have essentially written off Los Angeles County.
“The attitude is that, within L.A. County, . . . development was inevitable, you weren’t going to save anything anyway,” so fish and game “would rather spend their . . . very limited resources elsewhere,” Teresa said.
“You have a board of supervisors that’s philosophically opposed to restricting the use of private property, and I think they’re philosophically opposed to the public ownership of land,” said David Brown, an associate professor of history at Valley College and chairman of the Sierra Club’s Santa Monica Mountains task force.
But Vannatta, the Antonovich aide, said the county faces critical unmet needs and SEA purchase “cannot and does not have that kind of priority.” Besides, the idea is to protect the SEAs, not own them, he said.
“Mike’s interest is in protecting the resource,” Vannatta said of his boss. “We’ve been able to protect these lands without taking them off the tax rolls.”
Supervisor Ed Edelman said he was concerned the county had not made the SEAs “a high enough priority.”
An Edelman aide noted that the SEAs have not been a big issue for local environmental groups. “You’ve got a lot of commitments to honor and the ones you pay most attention to are the ones where people hold your feet to the fire,” he said.
As the first line of defense for the SEAs, the county created SEATAC, the panel of biologists that reviews projects in the SEAs.
SEATAC reviews building plans in SEAs for the effect on native vegetation and wildlife, and typically recommends a few changes to reduce damage, such as clustering of homes. On rare occasions, SEATAC advises that that a project be rejected as overly destructive. Such a recommendation by SEATAC figured earlier this year in denial of the huge Malibu Terrace development in the Palo Comado SEA, a project now being redesigned.
But some county planners, and SEATAC members themselves, see serious flaws in the system. As SEATAC member Frank Hovore put it, “the process still allows for the slow deterioration of the SEAs.”
For example, many SEA encroachments never come to SEATAC’s attention. Subdivisions need county approval, but landowners build single family homes and horse corrals or graze cattle in SEAs without SEATAC’s knowledge.
SIGNIFICANT ECOLOGICAL AREAS OF LOS ANGELES COUNTY Sixty-four Significant Ecologocial Areas* were designated for protection by Los Angeles County. They are hard to pinpoint and harder to protect. Here is an overview of them: * SAN FERNANDO VALLEY
Name & Number Location Natural Feature Chatsworth Reservoir (13) Chatsworth bird sanctuary Simi Hills (14) west of Chatsworth wildlife corridor Santa Susana Mts. (20) north Valley oak woodlands Santa Susana Pass (21) northwest Valley tarweed Tujunga Valley/Hansen Sunland rare, endangered Dam (24) plants Encino Reservoir (39) Encino rare plants Verdugo Mountains (40) Burbank, Tujunga wildlife corridor
* SANTA CLARITA/ANTELOPE VALLEYS
Name & Number Location Natural Feature San Francisquito Cyn. (19) north of Valencia endangered fish Santa Clara River(23) Santa Clarita Valley endangered fish Edwards AFB (47) north of Lancaster endangered plants Big Rock Wash (48) Antelope Valley wildlife habitat Little Rock Wash (49) near Palmdale wildlife habitat Rosamund Lake (50) N.E. of Lancaster alkali sink Saddleback Butte east of Lancaster wildlife refuge, State Park (51) desert wildflowers Alpine Butte (52) east of Palmdale wildlife, wildflowers Lovejoy Butte (53) east of Palmdale wildlife habitat Piute Butte (54) east of Palmdale birds, wildlife Desert-Montane east of Palmdale wildlife habitat Transect (55) Ritter Ridge (56) west of Palmdale Joshua trees Fairmont & Antelope west of Lancaster refuge for birds Buttes (57) of prey Portal Ridge/Liebre near Gorman diverse plant life Mountain (58) Tehachapi Foothills (59) near Gorman wildflowers Joshua Tree Woodland (60) N.W. of Lancaster Joshua trees Kentucky Springs (61) south of Palmdale Great Basin sage Lyon Cyn (63) Valencia woodland habitat Valley Oaks Savannah (64) Valencia valley oak habitat
Name & Number Location Natural Feature Malibu Coastline (1) Malibu marine habitat Point Dume (2) Malibu marine habitat Zuma Canyon (3) Malibu year-round stream Upper La Sierra Cyn. (4) Malibu woodlands, plants Malibu Cyn and Lagoon (5) Malibu steelhead run, only county lagoon Las Virgenes (6) Agoura rare plants Hepatic Gulch (7) Malibu rare plants Malibu Creek State Pk. Malibu critical watersheds Buffer Area (8) Cold Creek (9) Malibu springs & stream Tuna Canyon (10) Malibu riparian woodland Palo Comado Cyn (12) Agoura oak savannah habitat
* OTHER L.A. COUNTY
Name & Number Location Natural Feature Temescal-Rustic- west of 405 Fwy. canyon habitat Sullivan Cyns (11) Tonner Cyn/Chino Hills (15) near Diamond Bar oak woodlands Buzzard Peak/San Jose Walnut Calif. walnut groves Hills (16) Powder Cyn/Puente near La Habra Hts. riparian woodland Hills (17) Way Hill (18) San Dimas endangered plant Santa Fe Dam Flood- Irwindale wildlife corridor plain (22) San Dimas Cyn (25) San Dimas riparian lowlands San Antonio Cyn. Claremont desert vegetation Mouth (26) Portugese Bend Palos Verdes rare birds Landslide (27) Peninsula El Segundo Dunes (28) west of LAX endangered butterfly Ballona Creek (29) Marina del Rey salt marsh habitat Alamitos Bay (30) Long Beach salt marsh Rolling Hills Cyns (31) Miraleste rare birds Agua Amarga Cyn (32) Palos Verdes rare birds Peninsula Terminal Island (33) San Pedro bird nesting sites Palos Verdes Peninsula Palos Verdes Marine, terrestrial Coastline (34) Peninsula Harbor Lake Regional Wilmington freshwater marsh Park (35) habitat Madrona Marsh (36) Torrance freshwater marsh Griffith Park (37) Los Angeles bird, wildlife refuge Whittier Narrows Dam (42) Whittier Narrows wildlife refuge Rio Hondo College La Puente wildlife refuge Wildlife Sanctuary (43) Sycamore & Turnbull near Whittier canyon riparian Canyons (44) habitat Dudleya densiflora Azusa endangered plant population (45) Galium grande population (62) Monrovia endangered plant
*(Note: Although numbers go to 64, there are 61 SEAs. Three areas under consideration were not designated SEAs)