The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is a safe haven for those looking to get away from the hustle and bustle in Huntington Beach. The fresh ocean air and scenic view that the wetlands provide can help anyone forget about their troubles.
However, the 1,200-acre reserve would have been home to another marina had it not been for the nonprofit Amigos de Bolsa Chica, the key group that prevented the area from being developed in the late 1970s and 1980s. The organization is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and is hosting various events throughout 2016, including a documentary on Bolsa Chica and a science symposium.
The Amigos started as an advocacy group in 1976 with about 30 members, made up of residents and environmentalists who wanted to preserve the wetlands and prevent developer Signal Landmark from turning the area into a marina with about 5,000 homes. At one point, the developer proposed building as many as 10,000 homes.
After several lawsuits and hundreds of hours lobbying their case to legislators in Sacramento, the Amigos reached a settlement with Signal in 1989, and the group was able to start restoring the wetlands.
Shirley Dettloff, one of the Amigos’ founding members, said it is because of the dedicated members that the nonprofit has been around for as long as it has. She said the group encouraged others, including herself, to run for public office.
Dettloff, 80, was mayor of Huntington Beach and also became a member of the California Coastal Commission. Several other members served as mayor for Surf City, such as Norma Gibbs, Harriett Wieder, Ralph Bauer, Vic Leipzig and Peter Green.
“Being a part of the Amigos gave me the opportunity to do things in my community,” she said. “Now I tell every council member that gets elected that they have a rare opportunity that not many people have and to use it well.”
Margaret Carlberg, 81, another founding member of the Amigos, said that chills ran down her spine when she saw water flowing through the wetlands again in the mid-1990s. It reassured her that the more than 10 years of work she and others put in were not for naught.
“It was the first time that I really felt so proud of having been a part of something,” she said. “We took one little step at a time and overcame the various battles.”
Carlberg and her husband, Dave Carlberg, 81, who in 2009 published a book documenting the Amigos’ efforts, now live in Santa Barbara. However, the pair still drives down to Bolsa Chica about twice a month to visit old friends and the wetlands they helped save.
“It’s an amazing phenomenon that the Amigos are still around, because not too many local organizations stay around for so long and remain active,” Dave Carlberg said.
The Amigos’ membership boomed into the thousands during the 1980s as more residents and environmentalists recognized the importance of keeping the wetlands.
Though membership numbers are not what they used to be during its heyday, there are still many who are committed to maintaining Bolsa Chica.
Tom Livengood, 76, a past president of the Amigos, said the challenge now is upkeeping the wetlands for thousands of visitors.
“There’s still a lot to be done,” he said. “It will never be over. Like a national forest of Bolsa Chica State Beach, it’s ongoing. The goal was and is to save it for future generations.”