Even those who love the Whittier Narrows wildlife sanctuary concede that it suffers from a down-at-the-heels look. Invasive plants have elbowed out native species and, as one county official observed, the interpretive center resembles a Depression-era shack.
But does the sanctuary along the San Gabriel River need sprucing up or a makeover? That's the question dividing defenders of the nature preserve flanked by two freeways and a string of industrial parks in eastern L.A. County.
A torrent of opposition to a planned $30-million interpretive center has some advocates worried that the controversy will scare off funders and derail a project intended to enhance understanding of the greater San Gabriel River watershed.
Now, just weeks away from release of a draft environmental impact report on the proposal, project leaders are ratcheting up efforts to promote the center and a massive overhaul of the existing 416-acre wetlands. The project, they say, will create a gateway to an "emerald necklace" -- a 17-mile stretch of parks and "greenways" connecting 10 cities along the Rio Hondo and the San Gabriel River.
Supporters say as many as 24,000 students a year could be bused to the center -- a "discovery center" designed to showcase green technology -- to view state-of-the-art interactive exhibits and displays, including a 7,000-square-foot model of the San Gabriel River featuring flowing water.
Outside, they would learn about the rhythms of life in riparian habitats in an artificial wetlands to be built next to the real thing. Also planned is a replica of a Native American settlement, an outdoor sunken amphitheater, picnic area and improved trail systems.
"If the controversy impacts our funding sources, we'll have to reevaluate the proposal's financial feasibility," said Sam Pedroza, environmental planner for the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts and a key member of the center's stakeholders committee. "That would be a shame. It's not like we're trying to build a shopping mall in Yosemite Valley."
Critics, however, decry the size of the project, which would mark about 40 acres for immediate and future development. In the first phase, dozens of mature trees, and foraging grounds for migrating raptors, would be removed.
The sanctuary's existing center -- a cramped wood-frame house filled with terrariums and stuffed animals -- would be replaced by the 18,500-square-foot center, an auditorium, administrative offices and a parking lot for 150 vehicles.
Critics also take issue with supporters of the proposal who they say often dismiss them, falsely, as a "handful of elderly white docents." They are insulted when supporters suggest that children of local working-class minority families can learn more about nature from interactive models and replicas than from nature itself.
"It's too huge," said critic Eddie Barajas, 71, an avid bird-watcher who says he recently spotted one of the world's rarest songbirds, the federally endangered least Bell's vireo, in a thicket of willows and oaks slated to be cleared for the parking lot. "I'm not saying we couldn't use an upgrade. But this thing is a monstrosity that will change things forever."
That kind of talk has disappointed longtime backers of the proposal, including Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina; Rep. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte); Belinda Faustinos, executive director of the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy; and regional water districts that have donated more than $200,000 for publicity campaigns to promote the center and gain financial backing for construction that is expected to begin by 2010.
Final approval of the project, which is being shepherded by a joint powers authority, is contingent upon approval by the Board of Supervisors.
In the meantime, such opposition groups as Friends of Whittier Narrows have received a groundswell of support in recent months. For example, an advisory committee of biologists in August said the center isn't compatible with the area.
The sanctuary was founded in 1939 by the Audubon Society. In 1970, the county Department of Parks and Recreation acquired control of the area, a survivor of the struggle between the old Southern California of agricultural fields and river systems and the newer landscape of big stores and industrial parks.
But supporters of the project say the effort will replace invasive species with native plants and create a center appropriate for the setting.
"Students out there deserve the best," said Roxane Marquez, chief of staff for Molina. "The current center looks like something out of the movie 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' "
Andre Quintero, 33, a trustee at nearby Rio Hondo College, said the new exhibits and displays would expose working-class families, many of them Latino and Chinese, throughout the area to "interactive stuff designed to help them understand what they are seeing outside so that they can recognize it when they see it in the real world."
"When I was growing up, I knew nothing of nature. Zero," he said. "I didn't go to Yosemite until I was 32. I am not unique."
As Jo Sarachman, a Sierra Club representative on the stakeholders committee, put it, "These are inner-city kids who think red ants are wild animals."
The proposal was hatched in 2001 as a modest interpretive center where people could learn about water conservation and the work of the agencies that have been trying to upgrade and protect the region's watershed. In time the project has tripled in size as "more and more agencies want to make sure their stories are told there," Pedroza said.
"In retrospect, maybe we overlooked local residents," he said. "We need to go back to the people who haven't heard from us a few years and explain again what we want to do at Whittier Narrows."
Local Audubon Society and Sierra Club groups have agreed to remain neutral pending hearings later this year on the center's environmental impacts. Nonetheless, some environmentalists have started floating alternatives. Recently, Robert van de Hoek, president of the Whittier Area Audubon Society, proposed putting the discovery center in a downtown El Monte mall.
"I got the idea from national parks across the nation, which are dismantling their infrastructure and placing interpretive centers just outside their boundaries," he said.
On a recent weekday morning, half a dozen members of Friends of Whittier Narrows met for a weekly strategy session at the sanctuary, the grounds marked with the paw prints of raccoons and rabbits and the crooked trails of side-blotched lizards.
A colony of bright red cardinals -- imported from the East Coast and turned loose generations ago by their owner -- resides in the dense brush. A 4-foot-long western coachwhip snake slithered across the parking lot near the main entrance. A few yards away, a Cooper's hawk dived claws-first onto a squirrel, which managed to break free and disappear into a clump of bushes.
Seated at a picnic table amid an urban forest sprinkled with the red, orange and auburn of sycamores, oaks and alders, the group vowed to continue asking questions and demanding answers to ensure the sanctuary's protection.
"They think bird-watchers and nature lovers are passive people they just roll over," said Grace Allan, 78, a docent at the sanctuary. "That's what they think."