Twenty-five years ago, Gordon Smith banded with fellow environmentalists and set out to acquire and restore the remaining wetlands in Huntington Beach.
Now, Smith may be on the verge of knocking down the last barrier to his goal.
The state of California recently began the process of transferring ownership of the Newland Marsh, a 44-acre property at Beach Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway that constitutes the final stretch of wetlands that Smith's nonprofit, the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy, has yet to take over.
If that transaction is settled, the wetlands conservancy plans to remove a portion of the levee that separates the marsh from the ocean. A few swings of the wrecking ball, and the mission that Smith has pursued without pay since 1985 will be complete.
"These wetlands seem to have a biological memory," said Smith, chairman of the wetlands conservancy's board of directors. "As soon as ocean water comes back in, the habitat restores itself in a matter of months."
Since 1965, the Newland Marsh has been the property of the California Department of Transportation, which acquired the land by eminent domain from Mills Land and Water Co. At the time, the state planned to use the land for a coastal freeway, but the project fell through, and Caltrans held on to the land.
Now, Caltrans is designating the marsh as excess land, paving the way for a sale. The California Coastal Conservancy, which has helped the wetlands conservancy acquire land in the past, hopes to buy the property from Caltrans and donate it to Smith's group, project manager Greg Gauthier said.
"We would categorize it as degraded wetlands right now, but it certainly could be restored to a high-quality, functioning habitat," he said.
Caltrans spokeswoman Tracey Lavelle said that under the law, her department can sell the marsh to a public agency at the city, county, regional or state level. To her knowledge, only the Coastal Conservancy has expressed interest in buying it.
If the Newland Marsh changes hands smoothly from Caltrans to the wetlands conservancy, it would be a calm ending to several turbulent decades.
Mills Land and Water Co., which originally owned the property, sued Caltrans in the 1970s in an effort to regain the land. The company also sued the city for zoning the property as wetlands. The lawsuits were not settled until 2004. As part of the agreements, the company received some property and a boatyard, but Caltrans took control of the wetlands.
Almost immediately thereafter, the state found itself in another legal battle, this time with Action Boats, a retailer that had rented the boatyard and alleged that it had a right to buy the property. Action Boats filed a lawsuit, which was resolved in 2008 with the land remaining in Caltrans' hands, Lavelle said.
Huntington Beach's coastline represents a rare oasis of preservation, according to Coastal Conservancy spokesman Dick Wayman.
As wetlands disappear throughout California, Wayman said, Huntington Beach ranks among the top few cities in the state in terms of wetland acres preserved. He attributes that to Smith's nonprofit group.
"We've been very pleased with the success they've had with protecting and preserving the wetlands of Huntington Beach, and we're very happy to call them a partner in that work," he said.
The wetlands conservancy owns and manages 140 acres that extend along Pacific Coast Highway between the AES Power Plant and the Santa Ana River. The property consists of three adjacent marshes: Magnolia, Brookhurst and Talbert.
Smith and his colleagues began by restoring the Talbert Marsh in 1989, followed by Brookhurst in 2009 and Magnolia in 2010 as the land became available. In each case, the conservancy reconnected the marshes to tidal inlets, letting in fish and vital nutrients.
If the wetlands conservancy receives the Newland Marsh, the conservancy would remain in existence to oversee and maintain the wetlands, but its original mission to acquire the coastal lands would be complete.
"That would pretty much wrap it up," Smith said.