The Los Cerritos wetlands looks like a mall waiting to happen.
The dusty expanse of oil pumps and cracked earth is flanked by stores, multiplexes and parked cars. Above it all rises the red and yellow turret of Tower Records, topped with a giant purple neon sign reading, “Wow!”
But all is not what it seems here on the Long Beach-Seal Beach border, where the San Gabriel River meets the sea.
A blue-green tide pool glints behind the oil tanks. An egret sails above snarled traffic, and halibut and bass weave through water beneath a bridge.
Remnants of the natural world persist at Los Cerritos, the largest privately owned wetlands along the Los Angeles and Orange County coasts, and for two decades, state agencies and environmentalists have tried and failed to buy parts of the 400-acre marsh to save it from further development and neglect.
State officials will announce Tuesday that they quietly bought 66 acres of the marsh in Long Beach in late June, the first piece of Los Cerritos to pass into public hands. The purchase is being hailed as the start of an ambitious project to buy and restore the entire wetlands.
The state Wildlife Conservation Board is trying to purchase an adjoining 100-acre section of the marsh in Seal Beach in Orange County by the end of the year. Seal Beach residents have sought that piece of Los Cerritos, on land known as the Hellman Ranch, for decades.
“Everyone has broken their picks on this project for 20 years -- and now, finally, there is a breakthrough,” said Reed Holderman, western regional director at the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit group that bought the 66-acre property with state and private funds and transferred it to public ownership.
Scientists call the land a crucial missing link in preserving Southern California’s fast-disappearing salt marshes, noting that available land already has been bought up at better-known wetlands such as Ballona near Marina del Rey and Bolsa Chica in Huntington Beach.
“Los Cerritos is really the last frontier,” said Sam Schuchat, executive officer of the California Coastal Conservancy, a lead agency in last month’s purchase.
But no one expects the marshes to be transformed into a picture-postcard landscape overnight.
Home Depot is readying plans for 155,000 square feet of commercial space on 17 acres at the northern edge of Los Cerritos, just 200 feet from the wetlands and half a mile upriver from the new state purchase.
The owner of the largest part of the wetlands, Bixby Ranch Co., has not agreed to sell any of the 187 acres it owns. And restoring wetlands is costly; the Bolsa Chica project in Orange County is nearing $150 million.
Key to the recent purchase is an unusual arrangement in which a private company will continue to pump oil from the marshes, even as they are being restored. Such an approach may help entice other Los Cerritos owners to sell, officials said.
The 66-acre parcel, appraised at $14 million in 2003, was purchased for $10 million from members of the Bryant family, which donated $4 million worth of the land. The Coastal Conservancy, a state agency, contributed $7 million, and the remaining $3 million came from Signal Hill Petroleum Inc., as payment for the oil rights.
The Bryants’ attorney, F. Kevin Brazil, said the family didn’t want to comment on the deal.
Signal Hill Petroleum has agreed to study how to consolidate its roads and pumps, and to clean up contamination if any is found there, said Belinda Faustinos, executive officer of the new Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority, which now owns the land.
Los Cerritos is a textbook example of just how hard it can be to preserve wetlands in Southern California, which already has lost 95% of its coastal marshes to development.
Land along the region’s coastline ranks among the most expensive in the nation, so some wetlands are too pricey for the public to buy. Oil operations fended off development at Los Cerritos and Bolsa Chica, but they can leave behind contaminated soils, boosting costs.
And so-called “degraded wetlands” such as Los Cerritos just don’t make it into Sierra Club calendars or many potential donors’ hearts.
Ballona became a pet cause of the environmental elite in Santa Monica, Venice and Marina del Rey. Bolsa Chica has the added attraction of paralleling Bolsa Chica State Beach, a popular surfing spot.
But Los Cerritos has never been a cause celebre, in part because it is divided between two counties and two cities. Most Long Beach politicians have ignored the marshland; its most stalwart champion, former Councilman Frank Colonna, lost a campaign for mayor in June.
Yet biologists say that restoring Los Cerritos -- which covered 1,500 acres only 75 years ago -- will yield important results.Rejuvenating Los Cerritos, the biologists predict, will bring back a feeding ground for countless thousands of birds traveling the Pacific Flyway from Alaska to South America. Fish will breed in its shallow water, and the wetlands will filter and cleanse San Gabriel River water before it flows into the ocean.
And because it sits at the mouth of a river, agencies will not have to spend tens of millions of dollars to carve out an ocean inlet as they are doing at Bolsa Chica.
Those working to save any of these marshes need a stubborn optimism.
Holderman of the Trust for Public Land has plenty of it.
Last week, he strolled along a dusty path near the Belmont Shore Trader Joe’s to inspect the 66 acres his group helped buy.
He gazed past the rusting oil pumps and the dried-up earth toward a finger of open water. Soon, more tidal water will flow across this land and transform it, he said.
“It’s amazing what a little saltwater will do,” Holderman said. “It’s almost like instant breakfast. You add a little milk, and you have a full meal.”
Seawater already flushes some of the newly purchased land during high tide. It enters through a pipe barely 3 feet wide, limiting how much water can spill into the marshes.
But that can be fixed, said wetlands expert Eric Stein, principal scientist at the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project.
Stein leaned over a railing to point at the narrow pipe. Installing three or four pipes, he said, will sharply increase the amount of water in the wetlands, nurturing snails, worms and other creatures that hungry birds crave.
The land exudes the brackish smell of a marsh, caused by natural iron and sulfur in the mud.
A plant called pickleweed covers the ground, so named because its stubby limbs look like pickles.
Supporters hope that the Port of Long Beach will contribute to the restoration, because it is required by law to compensate for the underwater habitat lost when it builds terminals at the fast-expanding port complex four miles west on San Pedro Bay.
To date, the port has pumped $50.8 million into restoring Bolsa Chica, irritating Long Beach residents who thought the money should be spent at Los Cerritos.
The purchase at the southern end of Los Cerritos has come during the final environmental review of the controversial Home Depot project at the wetlands’ northern end.
That project -- which also includes a restaurant, two other stores and parking for 754 cars -- goes to the Long Beach Planning Commission for approval Aug. 17.
Supporters say that Home Depot will not be built on the marshes but on a former tank farm 200 feet away. A thorough environmental review found that the project would not harm the wetlands, said Home Depot spokeswoman Kathryn Gallagher.
Critics counter that the runoff from the parking lot will carry pollutants into the same marshes that the state is now spending millions to preserve.
The state Department of Fish and Game, which is responsible for protecting rare wetlands birds, failed to mention wetlands impacts when it commented on the Home Depot environmental report last year.
Spokesman Troy Swauger said that the project would not destroy pristine wetlands, and that the 200-foot separation is an adequate buffer.
Fish and Game did not know another state agency was buying land downstream, he said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, also charged with protecting rare birds, never commented on the environmental report at all.
“This is just a classic case of the difficulties that urban wetlands face,” said professor Richard Ambrose, director of UCLA’s environmental science and engineering program, adding that a project next to a wetlands generally needs a buffer of 100 to 200 meters, or about 330 to 660 feet.
But Ambrose said he is heartened by the size of the Los Cerritos purchase because in other areas of Los Angeles County, biologists struggle to protect just a few acres at a time.
At the Coastal Conservancy, Schuchat can recite by memory the region’s remaining marshes: Ormond Beach in Ventura County, Ballona and Los Cerritos in Los Angeles County, Bolsa Chica and Upper Newport Bay in Orange County, and a series of San Diego County wetlands.
“That’s all you’ve got in Southern California,” Schuchat said. “They’re a string of pearls, and we want to restore them all.”