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An Urban Oasis : Surrounded by condos sits a place the Chowigna Indians once used as a lookout spot. Today, people go there for an escape.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wilderness Park in Redondo Beach is a place where there are scrub jays instead of freeways, cottonwoods in place of condos, and meandering streams rather than suburban sprawl.

Tens of thousands of visitors enter the park every year seeking an oasis where even park staples like swing sets, baseball diamonds and closely cropped lawns are nowhere to be found.

Instead, its 11 acres are home to bullfrogs swimming in a swamp, skunks traversing a lush meadow and dozens of species of birds flitting through a grove of trees. It’s the South

Bay’s only overnight camping area and a popular resting spot for migrating birds and overworked humans.

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“Every time I’m there I’m able to get in touch with an inner calm, find my inner peace through the environment,” said Lisa McFarland, a naturalist who teaches children’s classes in the park. “It’s green. It has trickling streams. It’s a therapeutic recreation.”

Don’t peer through the forested mass too hard, however, or the illusion will be gone. Just behind the grove of California Sycamores, beyond the Allepo Pine and Catalina Ironwood, are the housing developments that earned this beach city the nickname Re- condo Beach.

Towering over the South Bay’s flatlands, Wilderness Park sits atop a strip of sand dunes that stretches 12 miles north to Playa del Rey. Its vantage point made it a popular lookout spot for Chowigna Indians and years later a site for the federal government’s Nike missile radar-tracking system.

When the missile program was phased, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Outdoor Recreation transferred the land to the city for $1 on the condition that it be developed as a public recreational spot. The transfer agreement, signed in 1971, returns the land to the federal government if that stipulation is violated or if Congress decides it needs the land for a national emergency.

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In the years following the acquisition, the city planted about 1,000 trees, including eucalyptus, pine, elm and California redwoods. Pumps were installed to feed water into two streams that flow into the man-made ponds. Once the forest was in place, the yellow rump warblers, hummingbirds and black-capped night herons came.

The park attracts hordes of naturalists, scout troops and bird watchers, but plopping a campground in the middle of urban sprawl means other, less-welcome visitors come too. Transients have attempted to turn the park into their own private camp; a rapist once fled from Torrance and used the park’s brush for cover; children have killed ducks, squashed eggs and dissected live crayfish.

Operating the park at Knob Hill Avenue and Camino Real requires more than just letting nature take its course.

The city spent $144,000 running Wilderness Park last year and because of budget constraints has slashed the park’s operating hours in recent months, city officials said. Once open six days a week, the park scaled back its hours in fall, 1991, and now is accessible on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. In addition, a nature center stands unused because of a lack of funds, and the only city employee on the grounds is the caretaker.

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Budget woes also have held up renovation of the ponds, which must be filled with thousands of gallons of water weekly because of leakage.

The lack of funds concerns some park regulars who wonder about the future of Wilderness Park. They say it ranks with Madrona Marsh and the undeveloped areas of the Palos Verdes Peninsula as one of the South Bay’s natural getaways.

“This is the city’s opportunity to have a real gem--if they want to maintain this park,” said David Moody, an avid bird watcher who has spotted more than 100 species in the park. “Most parks have a green area, four trees and a few basketball courts. Here you can really get away from the sounds of the city. But I’m concerned about what’s going to happen to Wilderness Park.”

City officials say, however, that the park is on its list of future projects. The budget plan being reviewed by the city calls for a $40,000 renovation of one of the ponds next year, and officials say they also will look into expanding the hours of operation.

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The park’s 55-year-old caretaker, Harold Helfgott, knows the area better than most. He’s been in charge of its upkeep since 1980 and has become a resource for visiting Boy Scouts, a tour guide for those looking for Green Swamp or Sycamore Camp and a disciplinarian for wayward children who haven’t learned the rules.

Helfgott speaks passionately of the park’s unique environmental offerings but he sees the grittier side of the place too.

“This place is a zoo on the weekends,” said Helfgott, who grew up on a farm in Maine and has worked for years as a horticulturist. “You practically need to reserve a spot by the pond to stick your pole in the water. There’s a lot more use and a lot more wear and tear.

“I’ve watched kids climb trees when they’re told not to,” he added. “I’ve seen them tear limbs from trees with their parents watching. They throw rocks at fish in the pond and pull the legs off crayfish. They even killed ducks with darts and stomped on the eggs.”

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In between his trimming, watering and cleaning, Helfgott tries to do some teaching. He lets people know which birds he’s spotted that day and answers questions about the park’s four ecosystems: a forest, a meadow, two streams and two ponds.

Helfgott’s time is limited, however, and he applauds efforts by local environmental groups to use Wilderness Park as a classroom for teaching children about nature.

“This park is very unusual because every other plot around here has been developed,” said Lilian Light, president of the Palos Verdes/South Bay Audubon Society, as she led an early morning bird watch in the park.

Her group is sponsoring a series of Saturday classes aimed at teaching children respect for nature at an early age.

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McFarland teaches similar classes during the week, using games with names such as “Oh Deer” and “Animal Charades” to let children discover the outdoors. Some of her students repeat the class year after year, McFarland said, and begin to share her view of Wilderness Park as a precious getaway.

“In this fast-paced, busy, busy world where everybody is struggling to get along, this place is a nice little respite,” McFarland said. “We feel like we’re above the houses and condos all around us--and we really are. When you’re in the park, you’re above suburbia.”

Nature Programs at Wilderness Park * The park is open to the public Thursday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Overnight camping reservations for Thursday, Friday and Saturday must be made in person at the Redondo Beach Recreation and Community Services Department, 320 Knob Hill Ave. Information: (310) 318-0668.

* Preschoolers can become “little environmentalists” during a nature walk to celebrate Earth Day at 10 a.m. April 22. Information: (310) 519-3294.

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* The Palos Verdes/South Bay Audubon Society is holding nature study classes for children ages 6 to 12 on May 2 and June 6. The June session will include a special morning program to introduce children to birds of prey. Information and reservations: (310) 318-0610.

* The city is offering a Wilderness Explorers Program on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 3 to 5 p.m. for children ages 5 to 9. There is a limit of 12 children per session and classes are filling up quickly. Information: (310) 318-0651.

A patch of flowering radishes catches the eye of Lillian Light.


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