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Ecology Exhibit Draws Protesters : Parks: Display is backed by a sect that demonstrators say would spoil mountain land by expanding Soka University.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It looked, to say the least, contradictory.

But there they were Tuesday, about 30 members of the Sierra Club and other environmentally correct residents of the Las Virgenes area, picketing a Santa Monica exhibit on, of all things, “Ecology and Human Life.”

It was not so much the exhibit they were protesting--most of the displays echoed the Sierra Club’s positions almost to the letter--but the sponsor: Soka Gakkai International-USA.

Protesters called the Japanese religious sect hypocritical for sponsoring the exhibit even as it moves forward with plans to build a 4,000-student university in a Calabasas meadow that environmentalists claim is among the most scenic in the Santa Monica Mountains. They have been fighting a years-long battle to compel the school to sell its land to state and federal agencies so the campus can be used as a park headquarters.

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“The Soka people are wolves in sheep’s clothing,” said Les Hardie, president of the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation and an opponent of the school’s expansion plans. “They are the most rapacious developers in the Santa Monica Mountains.”

Soka Gakkai spokesman Al Albergate shrugged and said the protesters were picketing the wrong place. “This exhibit has nothing to do with Soka University,” he said, adding that Soka Gakkai International-USA is not affiliated with the Calabasas university.

“In my mind, it’s kind of like protesting the local synagogue over the construction of Hebrew Union College on Sepulveda Boulevard,” said Soka University spokesman Jeff Ourvan.

University officials have said in the past that although the college is not operated by Soka Gakkai International-USA, it is financially supported in part by the sect’s Japanese mother church.

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For the most part, guests at the exhibit’s opening paid little attention to the protesters. After a ribbon-cutting with oversized Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce scissors, attendees meandered through the Wilshire Boulevard exhibit hall, perusing expensive displays on acid rain, recycling and deforestation.

Quotes from Soka Gakkai founder Daisaku Ikeda on the environment were included in the displays, mingled with statements from the likes of writer Henry David Thoreau, Vice President Al Gore, philanthropist Albert Schweitzer and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

“Words and deeds are two separate things,” said David Brown, conservation chairman of the Sierra Club’s Santa Monica Mountains Task Force. “The deed we want them to do is sell their land to the park.”

For their part, Brown and the other protesters had little interest in the actual contents of the exhibit. They carried signs with slogans such as, “Don’t Make Soka’s Mindless Make Us Parkless.” One sign displayed a drawing of several parking lots with a caption that read, “Soka’s Idea of Parkland.”

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“You’re welcome to come in and see the exhibit when you’re finished,” Albergate told the protesters.

“Why?” asked a passing protester.

“Well, to see what you’re protesting,” Albergate replied.

Few took him up on the invitation.

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Tuesday’s protest was the latest skirmish in the battle to stop Soka from developing its campus at the corner of Las Virgenes Road and Mulholland Highway, a war that has been fought out on legal, political and public relations fronts. Parks agencies have long coveted the school’s meadow as the site for a visitors’ center for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. But the school has refused to sell.

Late last year, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency that acquires parkland, began eminent domain proceedings to seize Soka’s land. That process has been delayed, however, because a Ventura County Superior Court judge ruled that the conservancy did not have the proper authority to begin proceedings.

The conservancy appealed and a ruling is expected by the end of the year.

In the meantime, Soka lobbyists have been encouraging legislators to restrict the conservancy’s ability to use public money to condemn its property. An environmental impact report on the school’s expansion plan is due by the end of the year, Ourvan said.

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