Uplands up the ante at Ballona – and beyond
October 31, 2010 § 33 Comments
An exciting find of the first California gnatcatcher recorded since 1880 in Ballona Wetlands (Daily Breeze) underscores the significance of the upland habitats that have colonized on this disturbed site. I hope in the coming days we’ll find out more about what part of the wetlands complex is appealing to these birds – generally they like sage scrub environments. A beautiful bluff restoration project is growing in, but there are also coastal sage scrub patches within the Ballona wetlands itself that the birds may be drawn to.
And for enthusiasts of the Ballona Wetlands, we find ourselves with a Catch-22: a finite site naturally suited by topography, soil and hydrology to be a wetland that would support some endangered species, is in its altered form providing valuable upland habitat that supports some endangered species, so what do we restore and at what cost or potential loss? This is a fundamental question behind the wetland restoration alternatives, some of which pose modest alterations to preserve the now-present uplands, while others re-vision the site as more of a naturally-functioning wetland.The area managed today by the state is only about one-third of its 1900 extent. The two-thirds that are lost to wildlife include Venice and Marina del Rey (although we can argue over the wetland and habitat value of the canals and marina). On the remaining reduced site, fill and levees (with tidegates) restrict natural wetland processes; the inflow of fresh water and sediment (also altered due to urbanization/concreting of practically all streams) mixing seasonally with tidal influences is greatly diminished. I’ve probably said it before: the extent to which it functions as a wetland today is not determined by natural forces but by agencies mediating the competing interests of local jurisdictions and the public. And so the wetlands as we know them are shaped by human management, and our management decisions end up being acts of selection as to which species will colonize and thrive there.
It is worth recognizing that the multi-year biological monitoring programs currently underway – and the publicity of these finds – at the wetlands is increasing our understanding of the implications of management and restoration decisions.
And for me, it brings another take-home point. The state only has jurisdiction over +/-640 acres here. So what about the other 5,623,680 acres of the Ballona watershed, of which probably less than 15% is undeveloped, degraded and disconnected native habitat? Or the developed acres of the neighboring coastal strand communities? We’re going to end up in another stinky enviro-on-enviro fight, this time over how much habitat and wildlife we can cram into .01% of the Ballona Watershed. Whither habitat in the other 99.99%? Meanwhile in other venues I hear that the mandating -or even just advocating for – native landscaping is the equivalent of plant racism, nazism, or fascism – indeed only a short leap to human racism. Nazis for Gnatcatchers?
And here I thought I was staring the consequences of human-driven biotic colonialism/imperialism in the face. If people really want to go there, the habitat loss caused by development + “garden-variety” horticulture compares much more closely with biotic genocide. When our Home Depot landscape supports endangered and threatened species I’ll give this perspective another look, but for now this strikes me as Tea Party logic applied to our landscape, distracting us from real issues of ecology and habitat loss, in the name of beauty. A standard of beauty that is not based on our unique Mediterranean locale.
And at Ballona, anyone willing to go the mat over habitat distribution there would be well-served to take on this issue. More uplands = more flexibility in our options. I find the silence around the fate of grey foxes in West Athens* relative to the howling at the idea of flooding wetlands (they do flood, naturally) to be an interesting reflection on our short-sightedness here. We could be channeling at least some of our passion for upland species to protect and restore upland habitats in actual topographic uplands.
How willing are we to change our land use patterns and mature our aesthetics to respect the actual natural conditions of the land we live on so that these once abundant birds – and so many other species – aren’t all managed in the one public parcel we could muster the political will to buy from a developer?
*true, a story about poisoning. But how has upland habitat loss confined these little guys to the margins of golf-courses where their primary food comes laced in strychnine?