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Climate & Environment

Endangered plants bulldozed in Topanga State Park

Topanga State Park
Nick Jensen, a senior botanist with the California Native Plant Society, surveys the damage to Braunton’s milk vetch caused by a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power construction project in Topanga State Park.
(Allison Zaucha / For The Times)

Crews for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power recently bulldozed hundreds of federally endangered plants in Topanga State Park, and both state and city authorities have launched investigations into DWP’s actions, part of a wildfire prevention project aimed at replacing 200 aging wooden power poles with steel ones.

“In response to recent community concerns about protected plants in the construction area, the LADWP has halted construction and is working with biologists and other experts to conduct an investigation and assessment of the site,” Stephanie Spicer, a spokeswoman for the city water and power agency, said late Wednesday in response to inquiries from The Times.

In a separate incident this year, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works apparently encased federally threatened red-legged frogs in cement while making emergency repairs to a culvert in a portion of nearby Leo Carrillo State Park, which is vulnerable to heavy debris flows because of last year’s Woolsey fire.

Both events, not previously publicized by the agencies involved, have recharged debate over balancing wildfire safety and protecting fragile ecological resources following big blazes, including last year’s deadly Camp and Woolsey fires — and the Tubbs fire the year before that.

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“We’re in the middle of an investigation into a lot of troubling questions,” said Andrew Willis, enforcement supervisor for the California Coastal Commission. “We’re contacting all appropriate state and federal wildlife agencies because they are going to want to look into them closely.”

Sometime in July, DWP crews used bulldozers to clear and widen a graded road as part of a wildfire prevention project stretching from Pacific Palisades to Lake Encino. The California Public Utilities Commission has identified this area — which includes some of Southern California’s most expensive coastal real estate — as having an “elevated fire risk.” By installing steel poles, DWP hopes to make the power lines more resistant to high winds and fire.

“This project will help ensure power reliability and safety, while helping reduce wildfire threats,” DWP said in a statement Thursday. “These wooden poles were installed between 1933 and 1955 and are now past their useful service life.”

But in doing the work , say state authorities, the crews potentially destroyed hundreds of Braunton’s milk vetch plants, an endangered species whose remaining numbers have dwindled to less than 3,000 in the wild.

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The city utility had been alerted to the presence of the endangered plants on July 7 via an email sent by David Pluenneke, an amateur botanist and avid hiker. It thanked him for calling the issue to their attention, according to documents obtained by The Times.

Eight days later, Pluenneke visited the site and discovered that crews had removed all vegetation across several acres for a new dirt fire road, 24 feet wide. He was livid, and remains angry.

“It’s hard not to think that if there had been blue whales and panda bears up there, they would have bulldozed them, too,” Pluenneke said.

The amateur botanist complained in writing to Deborah Hong, a spokeswoman for the LADWP in Pacific Palisades. She replied that a staff biologist was preparing a report on the matter.

In the meantime, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Parks and Recreation and the California Coastal Commission are trying to determine if any laws were broken. They are also trying to determine the extent of the damage to the overall plant population, which consists of just a dozen colonies, all in the mountains surrounding the Los Angeles Basin.

Efforts to determine the full extent of the damage in milk vetch and frog habitat have been muddled by a confusing overlap of county, state and federal jurisdictions, officials said. In addition, the federal Endangered Species Act has minimal authority when it comes to endangered plants on state lands.

“We can’t undo what happened,” Suzanne Goode, an environmental scientist with California State Parks, said. “But we are working on what the next steps will be. Obviously, there needs to be some sort of mitigation.”

Overall, fewer than 3,000 individual Braunton’s milk vetch plants persist in a region spanning about 80 miles from east to west and 25 miles from north to south. More than half of those plants are in Topanga State Park.

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A short-lived perennial in the pea family, Astragalus brauntonii, grows only in areas with calcium carbonate soils that have been disturbed by fire. Scientists say the species, which gets about 5 feet tall, has been under siege by urban development and wildfire safety projects since botanists first described it in 1903, based on specimens collected above Santa Monica, according to a federal report.

In 1998, for instance, state and federal wildlife authorities and conservation organizations were negotiating with a developer to protect a milk vetch patch in the Santa Monicas, but then “the plants and their habitat were deliberately destroyed by the developer with approval of Ventura County,” the report said.

In Leo Carrillo State Park, about 25 miles west of Topanga, the presumed loss of red-legged frogs comes as biologists are working to reintroduce the once common amphibians to streams where they have not been seen in nearly half a century.

Since the 1960s, fires, mudslides, pesticides, fungal infections, loss of habitat and other threats have decimated these frogs, which grow up to 5 inches in length and are named because of their crimson undersides.

In December, they faced a new threat: Damage done by county crews on an emergency mission to fill holes underneath the abutments of a culvert near Mulholland Highway. It was part of an effort to prevent the culvert’s collapse if it were hit by debris flows from fire-stripped slopes.

The work was halted after state officials contacted county public works with concerns about the potential for red-legged frogs inhabiting the site, said Kerjon Lee, a spokesman for the agency.

Later, the construction plan was revised and permits were obtained from State Parks “to continue the work under certain conditions, such as a biologist on site at all times,” Lee said.

As for the frogs, “we didn’t find any — alive or dead,” Goode said. “It’s possible they were entombed in the cement.”

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During a recent visit to Topanga State Park, Nick Jensen, a conservation analyst for the nonprofit California Native Plant Society, suggested a bright side to the Topanga controversy.

“We’re not against replacing these old wooden poles,” he said. “But we are demanding a plan from the city, county and regulatory agencies on how we can go forward with urgent fire safety projects without these kinds of things happening again.”

Jensen picked up a handful of broken milk vetch stems laden with seedpods. “So, we may be looking at the milk vetch that roared,” he said.


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