Hemmed in by warehouses, freeways and crowded neighborhoods, the fragmented bits of nature left in the Baldwin Hills might seem a doomed vestige of another era.
But on Wednesday conservationists unveiled a dramatic proposal to tie those parcels together by turning a half-mile stretch of La Cienega Boulevard into a tunnel.
As part of an effort to create a 1,200-acre park, the street would be covered by green space, allowing animals and park users to cross without even knowing there were cars below. The boulevard there runs through a valley and creates the biggest obstacle to uniting two main ridges, which flank it like lobes of a brain.
As the nonprofit Community Conservancy International unveiled the plans to restore and save habitat in the oil fields and canyons of the Baldwin Hills, scientists released a report that found a surprising number of native species living there: 166 kinds of birds, 72 of plants and 21 of mammals, including the gray fox.
The yearlong study, conducted by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and funded by the state, took a biological inventory of the Baldwin Hills, which stretch from the quiet sage-scrub canyons near Culver City to the oil derricks along La Cienega, south of Jefferson Boulevard.
"Considering the amount of urban development on the perimeter and the many disturbances within the hills, we were pleased to find a number of species have survived there which have long disappeared from the lowlands," said Kimball Garrett, ornithology collections manager of the museum.
The study and design come as part of a movement to create a multiuse park that would be larger than Golden Gate Park in San Francisco or Central Park in New York. The space would include the existing 350-acre Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area and tie together parcels of undeveloped land throughout the hills.
In December, the state and county paid $41 million for a 68-acre parcel there--in what was called the most expensive urban park acquisition in state history. Last week, a newly formed state agency, the Baldwin Hills Conservancy, met for the first time to discuss its role in restoring the area.
Wednesday's proposals for the Baldwin Hills were the first designs for how the patches of land could be woven into a cohesive park.
While the tunnel proposal was the most dramatic and ambitious, a rival, more modest proposal calls for three small bridges to cross La Cienega, mainly for wildlife and pedestrians.
Whichever one is chosen at coming public workshops, it will probably be amended and then sent to the state parks commission for adoption in the area's master plan. No cost estimates were offered Wednesday.
Establishing a park so close to homes carries a host of problems. Residents often do not want soccer fields or skateboard parks next door.
To curtail neighborhood opposition, designers of the Baldwin Hills proposals included buffer zones of natural space around the edges; busy picnic grounds and sports fields would be concentrated in the center, away from homes.
"The greatest challenge is balancing the need to protect neighbors, the demand for new facilities and the need to have some natural open space," said Esther Feldman, president of Community Conservancy International, the main organizer of the movement to preserve the hills.
The diverse communities surrounding the area are some of the most park-poor in Los Angeles, with less than one acre of open space per 1,000 residents. Because the hills offer some of the last open land left in the Southwest Los Angeles area, people want to use them for everything from fishing and soccer games to wedding ceremonies.
The proposals, created by two landscape architecture firms for the nonprofit group, include an amphitheater, a golf course, sports fields, a skateboard park, a dog park, a botanical garden, a visitor center and a campground.
More than 200 acres would remain natural, with hiking trails and vista points that offer sweeping panoramas from Santa Catalina Island to the San Gabriel Mountains.
Garrett, the ornithologist, said patches of coastal sage scrub and grassland are remarkably pristine, considering almost a century of oil production in the area. He said that even some delicate species, such as the Pacific tree frogs and California quail, which often are the first to disappear in developed areas, still live there. "The fact that there's still a lot of California quail in the Baldwin Hills says there's a lot of hope there," he added.
Yet other species have disappeared, he said. Coyotes roamed the hills until at least the 1950s, and the cactus wren was spotted there as late as 1995. Neither showed up in the recent study.