Natural Perspectives: Good news for conservancy, wetlands

Lou and I were delighted to read some good news last week. A news report in the Independent indicated that Huntington Beach is to going to see some more of its wetlands protected and probably restored ("Conservancy goes for last piece," June 1). The wetlands to the northeast of Beach Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway are closer than ever before to full protection and restoration. While to some, the area doesn't have the glamour of the larger Bolsa Chica wetlands to the north, it is large enough to support wetland vegetation and wetland wildlife. It is good news indeed that it will be protected and not developed.

This area was once part of a vast marsh at the mouth of the Santa Ana River. Maps from the late 1800s show this marsh extending over 4,000 acres. Today about 150 acres remain. Most of it was filled and converted to residential tracts in the mid-20th century. But the parcel at PCH and Beach was spared that fate.

The history of the site is convoluted. About 1960, the California Department of Transportation was planning to convert PCH into a freeway, so it used eminent domain to take possession of the adjacent real estate in a strip along the north side of PCH from Beach down to the Santa Ana River. The freeway concept died due to massive public resistance.

At that point, Caltrans might well have simply returned the land to its previous owner, the Mills Land and Water Co, but the state intervened again. In 1972, the people of California passed Proposition 20, the Coastal Initiative, which created the California Coastal Commission as well as a moratorium on coastal development. Then the California Coastal Act of 1976 gave force of law to efforts to protect remaining coastal resources such as salt marshes. Mills Land and Water, Caltrans, the Coastal Commission and the city of Huntington Beach were locked in lawsuits for decades thereafter.

Finally, Mills received approval to build on a portion of its holdings along Newland Street. The company then relinquished its claim on the Caltrans property.

So what is Caltrans to do with the site now that it no longer needs the property for a freeway? It will probably transfer title to the land to another state agency, the California State Coastal Conservancy.

That is exactly what happened to the 20-acre Talbert Marsh south and east of Brookhurst Street in 1984. Caltrans no longer needed it and gave it to the coastal conservancy. The Coastal Conservancy then side-stepped permanent responsibility of managing the Talbert Marsh by turning it over to a local nonprofit, the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy.

Since then, the wetlands conservancy has also acquired the wetlands all the way up to the power plant. Assuming that the coastal conservancy receives the wetlands between Beach and Newland, their logical move would be to turn them over to the wetlands conservancy for management.

I was a founding member of the board of directors of the wetlands conservancy and served from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. During those early years, the board chairman was Gordon Smith, a (now retired) manager of the California State University system. Gordon has stayed with the wetlands conservancy through its entire history and could, if he wasn't so modest, rightfully claim to be one of the most dedicated "wetland warriors" in Orange County.

Under his leadership, the wetlands conservancy has not only acquired wetland parcels from several different prior owners, but obtained the funding necessary for restoration of those parcels to tidal flow. Today, those parcels are functioning habitat that are valuable for wildlife. And they are also a great enhancement of the public's view of Huntington Beach compared to the junk-strewn fields they were a few decades ago. Congratulations to Gordon and his colleagues at the wetlands conservancy.

By the way, the public is invited to help the wetlands conservancy in its management responsibilities. Restoration Saturday will be from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. June 18. The public is invited to help with the native plant nursery and general marsh clean-up.

Then on Sept. 17, a major trash removal effort is schedule to coincide with the statewide Coastal Cleanup Day. Parking is at the Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center at Newland and PCH. The folks at the wetlands conservancy would like you to preregister so they know how many people to plan for. Call (714) 536-0141 or e-mail to volunteer.

Just to catch you up on some random happenings in our lives, the house wrens have disappeared from our yard apparently without raising any young. The male wren sang and sang. Eventually, he had a mate in both the front and back nesting boxes. The female in front seemed to have disappeared without success. The female in back tended her nest for quite some time, apparently incubating eggs judging from the amount of time that she spent in the box. But neither Lou nor I observed any feeding of young. So the first wren nestings in our yard don't seem to have resulted in any increase in the house wren population.

And to catch you up on the silkworms that our little grandgirls were raising, the silkmoths hatched earlier this week. The adult moths are flightless. Their purpose is to find each other, mate and lay eggs. Once that is accomplished, they will die. Reports are that the little girls are very excited at having the pretty, white "moffs" hatch from their "ta-toons."

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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