First they fought off a power plant.
Then they defeated a garbage dump.
Now people who have struggled for decades to transform a forlorn patch of hills and swamps into a park stretching from the Baldwin Hills to Culver City are preparing to take on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The California Performance Review, charged by Schwarzenegger with finding ways to save money and streamline state bureaucracy, has recommended eliminating the Baldwin Hills Conservancy and four others, including one in the San Gabriel Valley.
The report, which identifies more than 100 semi-independent government agencies as extraneous, contends that the state could save $2.1 million annually by getting rid of the conservancy and putting the land’s fate into local hands.
There is no guarantee that Schwarzenegger will forward the report’s recommendation to the Legislature. But even the slightest suggestion of losing hard-fought political power over the Baldwin Hills is spurring a spirited fight.
With acres of dun-colored hills dotted with oil pumps abutting scenic Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, the Baldwin Hills may not be as easy to love as the High Sierra of Ansel Adams. But its supporters insist that one day they will be.
The upland areas of the Baldwin Hills are a key watershed, and the lowlands help filter the water that flows into Ballona Creek, which empties into Santa Monica Bay at Marina del Rey. It is one of the few places where coastal sage scrub and foxes survive in an urban setting.
The Baldwin Hills Conservancy project, which includes Kenneth Hahn and several smaller nearby parks, also is vital to a predominantly black area of the city that is starved for recreational space, advocates say.
“Within a 5-mile radius of the Baldwin Hills, there’s one picnic table for every 10,000 people; one playground per 23,000 people and one soccer field for 30,000 people,” said Michael Jones, president of the Friends of Baldwin Hills. “We need our park.”
Of about 45,000 people who live in the hills, which include Baldwin Hills, View Park, Windsor Hills and Ladera Heights, more than three quarters are black, 9% are Latino and 6% are white, according to the 2000 U.S. census.
The immediate neighborhood is home to one of the wealthiest African American neighborhoods in the nation, one that wields substantial political might. To those residents, the proposal to eliminate the conservancy will constitute a return to the days when city and county zoning decisions tried to foist undesirable projects on minority neighborhoods.
“I think people sometimes think they can do things like this, believing that this community won’t stand up for their rights and won’t have people to speak up for them, but they’re wrong,” said Robert Garcia, executive director of the Center for Law in the Public Interest, which says it will sue if Schwarzenegger follows through on the report’s recommendation.
“This is a human rights issue and fundamentally an issue of equal justice,” Garcia added. “We will fight for the children of Baldwin Hills.”
The Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club also has joined the fight to save both the Baldwin Hills and the Rivers and Mountains conservancies, the San Gabriel organization.
“These two are of particular concern to the Sierra Club because we are very eager not only to protect wilderness but also to improve life in urban environments,” said Bonnie Sharpe, spokeswoman for chapter.
“Everybody recognizes that this is not right.
“I’m not Latino, I’m not African American; I live in Orange County. But I feel strongly about this, so what does that tell you?” she asked.
The California Performance Review recommendations do not suggest that parks are not needed in Baldwin Hills.
But unlike vast mountain ranges like the Santa Monicas and Sierra Nevada, the report said, two square miles of Baldwin Hills do not merit a state-level conservancy because they are not “of statewide interest that benefit all Californians.”
In addition, the report says, eliminating the conservancy could allow the state to redirect $2.1 million annually, mostly of it from environmental license plate fees, toward other environmental causes.
The fate of $40 million in bond money approved by voters for the conservancy to purchase and preserve acreage, however, remains unresolved.
“That’s the $64,000 question,” said Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City), who, along with former Assembly Speakers Herb Wesson and Antonio Villaraigosa, helped shepherd the creation of the conservancy through the Legislature.
“The money at this point does not revert back to anywhere,” Murray said. “This points to the absurdity of this proposal.”
Schwarzenegger’s review board also has recommended eliminating the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, which has helped restore stretches of the San Gabriel River shoreline in heavily Latino eastern Los Angeles County.
“This governor doesn’t understand he opened up a can of worms here,” said Rep. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte), who helped create the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy in 1999.
Like the Baldwin Hills, the far eastern corner of Los Angeles County has been a “dumping ground for negative projects,” Solis said, citing the area’s vast gravel pits. For the 68 cities in the conservancy area, the gradual restoration of land along the river has instilled both pride and hope, she said.
“I grew up here, picnicking and vacationing along the river and the canyon,” Solis said. “You couldn’t go to the beach, so what you did was go to the creek. Many families couldn’t afford to go to Yellowstone or Sequoia National Park, so that’s something a lot of people here relate to.”
That Schwarzenegger might cut two urban conservancies soon after he signed legislation to create a land conservancy to protect the Sierra Nevada comes as a double blow to advocates for urban parks.
“You can’t just be for clean air and protecting birds and protecting fish; you’ve got to do something for people,” said Murray.
“We’ve spent decades saving various species of rats while letting inner-city kids languish away without having opportunities for recreation.”