The La Tuna Canyon SPS

April 19, 2011 § 9 Comments

A seasonal wash is shaded by mature Coast Live Oaks. Upon approaching the grove from the only probable entry route, there are no signs of potential human intervention to be found. It is only when you travel to the upstream side of the wash that you can see an aluminum survey tag on every tree in sight. Standard survey practice or intentional deceit?

S-P-S, shorthand for Sediment Placement Site, a seemingly benign acronym for a rather mundane phrase from the venerable book of public agency jargon. Yet the mere mention of the term is quickly becoming a harbinger of the ear-splitting sound of old-growth oaks snapping under the weight of heavy machinery and of mournful calls from flocks of birds and bats circling above any empty field that was once habitat. On the morning of January 12th, 2011, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works began an inconceivably rapid, two-day demolition of the Arcadia Woodlands despite significant public disapproval (including a petition with 1,922 signatures). The event cast an critical light on the current, woefully outdated watershed management methodologies of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. Unfortunately, it appears the destruction of the Arcadia Woodlands was merely a symptom of a systemic disregard for the value of some of L.A.’s last remaining urban wildlands… and the next area to be threatened may be of particular interest to local creek freaks…

A diagram of the site shows the three distinct side canyons each with a unique character. The "Central Branch" is where the oak grove is located along with the ominous survey markers.

The proposed sediment placement site is located in the Verdugo Mountains just east of the community of Sun Valley. The site is adjacent to the La Tuna Canyon Debris Basin and is partially visible from La Tuna Canyon Road. The project boundaries have not been publicly defined (to my knowledge) although this map compiled by Jerry Baker outlines the broader property owned by the County of Los Angeles. The character of the site is markedly different from that of the Arcadia Woodlands (which was flat, accessible and neighborhood-adjacent) and is comprised of three fairly inaccessible foothill  ravines which join to form a small side canyon that empties into La Tuna Canyon Debris Basin. A fence along La Tuna Canyon Road prevents access into the debris basin which must be traversed in order to reach the proposed sediment placement site. Due to its diverse collection of plant species, relative isolation and lack of roads or trails, the habitat quality of the property is undeniable. It is located in a range entirely surrounded by urban development and any greenfield development, especially something as intrusive as sediment placement, would significantly impact local wildlife. Perhaps most disturbing (and most pertinent to L.A. Creek Freak) is the fact that any sediment placement activities on this site would, without question, bury a local watershed.

A broad view of the "Central Branch" where oak trees have been tagged by surveyors.

In addition to the ecological significance of the site, it also has quite a bit of historical significance as well. In 1957, a tragic mid-air collision between a Douglas DC-7B (transport aircraft) and a Northrop F-89J Scorpion (fighter jet) resulted in 7 deaths and 74 injuries when the DC-7B crashed onto the playground of Pacoima Junior High School playground where an estimated 220 boys were just finishing a physical education class. Another fatality occurred when the F-89J crashed into a hillside located within the La Tuna Canyon SPS project boundaries, killing pilot Roland E. Owen instantly. Walking along the ridge that divides the “East Branch” and “Central Branch” canyons, one will find bits and pieces of the aircraft still strewn about beneath the sage scrub.

An incredible find, wreckage from a 1957 mid-air collision is strewn along a ridge in the middle of the site.

Remnants of an abandoned settlement can also be found in the “East Branch” canyon. Concrete masonry units, half-buried foundations and aging lumber are scattered under mounds of chaparral. Discarded jars and cans with legible labels still rest empty on the ground. Lemon and quince trees, likely planted decades ago, bear fruit that will go unharvested. Given that all of these discoveries were made in just over an hour, one wonders what else might be found upon further exploration.

An artifact from an abandoned settlement, a lemon tree remains productive in the midst of coastal sage scrub and chaparral.

Although the Environmental Impact Report process has not been initiated for the La Tuna Canyon site, the County has undoubtedly considered contacting the governor’s office (if they have not already done so) to request an emergency declaration, which would permit the County to proceed with the dumping of sediment without having to comply with applicable environmental regulations and procedures. The adversarial relationship that was needlessly forged between the County and the general public during the Arcadia Woodlands saga casts even more doubt on the proposed actions of the County. The survey markers on site and aluminum tags that adorn the oaks are not becoming of an agency that is supposedly willing to consider alternatives. The mere placement of the tree tags alone speaks volumes about the DPW’s true method of operation.

An enormous Coast Live Oak stands above all in the cool, shady wash. This specimen is one of the largest oaks I have ever seen and it is tagged as #18.

Standing at the southern end of what Cam Stone calls the “pristine chapel”, arching coast live oaks reach across a seasonal wash in unison, creating a vaulted ceiling of foliage that undulates when a breeze floats up the canyon. Strolling uphill through the ravine, one cannot help but look up into the dappled light of the canopy above. The marvelous line of trunks could easily double as buttresses in a Gothic cathedral. Upon reaching the northern end of the wash, the illusion fades when, glancing back, gleaming medallions reduce the idyllic scene to a lifeless collection of numbers. The placement appears to be entirely deliberate and deceptive all at once. Unanswered questions seep into the the inquisitive mind. Do the tags mean the trees are marked for removal? If such a project is truly meant for the benefit and safety of the public, why must it be so covert? If the project is honestly an emergency operation, where no preferable alternatives exist, shouldn’t the County be able to wholeheartedly justify its need to the public in a transparent and open fashion?

An aluminum survey tag reads "43". The tag is identical to those found on trees demolished in the Arcadia Woodlands (minus the striped ribbon). This was the highest numbered tag on site, but more trees may also be in jeopardy.

The County public relations narrative would have you believe that the issue is a cut and dry duality where objective folks are meant to choose between saving a remnant woodland and protecting public health, safety and welfare in the face of catastrophic floods and debris flows. In reality, this blatantly misrepresents the position of individuals and groups fighting to save threatened urban wildlands. Wildland supporters understand (more than most) the tremendous impacts of wildfires such as the Station Fire. They understand the dire need for sediment clearing and preventing dams from being decommissioned. They understand the incredible magnitude of logistics involved in maintaining a dysfunctional, constructed watershed. Despite likely water cooler conversations at County offices derogatorily arguing the contrary, the general public is not set on making the agency’s job more difficult. Such wounds are self-inflicted and are the result of the DPW’s baffling unwillingness to adapt to an increasingly educated and concerned public. In an informative letter released by the Shadow Hills Property Owners Association (and also in communications from the Theodore Payne Foundation), it is explained that the Vulcan Materials Company may be open to the possibility of utilizing empty quarry pits in Irwindale as an alternative regional sediment placement site. Such alternatives should be explored extensively and discussed openly with the public. We are in this predicament together and that is how it should be solved. Let’s hope the lines of communication become untangled in the coming months and years because, after all, we’re the ones paying the bill.

In the meantime, here is a brief list of things you can do to stay involved:

  • Visit www.urbanwild.org for more information on the project. The group represents a coalition of concerned citizens who galvanized after the destruction of the Arcadia Woodlands and whose goal is to prevent such an event from happening again. If there is a threatened wild place in Southern California, you are likely to find info on this site.
  • Sign up for the Theodore Payne Foundation newsletter. The organization is at the front line and sends out periodic updates on the issue.
  • Contact your local L.A. County Supervisor and voice your concerns.
  • Contact Los Angeles City Council District 2. Councilmember Paul Krekorian has apparently expressed his support for locating alternate disposal sites.
  • Contact Mr. Youssef Chebabi, project manager for the L.A. County Department of Public Works, at (626) 458-6154 or ychebabi@dpw.lacounty.gov and voice your concerns.

An aerial survey marker and stake have been planted just below the canyon containing the oak grove.

§ 9 Responses to The La Tuna Canyon SPS

  • Joe Linton says:

    Those pics are beautiful… the situation scary though.

  • Erik Knutzen says:

    Thanks for this article. Time for new county supervisors!

  • Jessica Hall says:

    Thanks, Josh, for this thoughtful piece!

  • Chelsey Olsen says:

    Do you know if they are planning on using La Tuna to dump the debris and sediment blocking the Devil’s Gate Dam?

  • Judy Smith says:

    I grew up in La Tuna Canyon from 1955-1972 and remember the plane crash. My parents drove us all up to see the remains of the aircraft. I remember asking them where the aircraft remains go. I also remember many visits to the Gene and Lois Brewer family who lived on the other side of the wash that is shown in the second picture. The Brewers’ had two sons who were involved with cub scouts, which my dad and brothers were also involved in. There was another interesting looking house on that far side of the wash that was made of brick and shaped like a castle with cacti planted all around it. My big brother used to deliver the Herald Express newspaper to all of La Tuna Canyon as well as the Brewers and the occupants of “the castle”. During that time, the famous Sheb Wooley (Flyin’ Purple Eater} owned a house in the canyon and was one of my brother’s customers as well. He wore pink fuzzy slippers around his house. Sadly, the Brewers and a few other families (including the occupants of “the castle”), had to move from their homes in the late 50’s because of flooding hazards on that side of the detention basin. Their homes were torn down but the trees and cacti remain to this day. Some things linger in my childhood memories, like riding my horse up the canyon to the flood basin, and always looking at the ruins of those houses. What saddens me the most is, more than 50 years later, the properties where those families were forced to leave, have never, ever been flooded.

  • […] acknowledging that her involvement in the topic of sediment management came about as a result of a planned sediment placement site in La Tuna Canyon, just up the road from the nursery. She echoed Dr. Swift’s statements stressing the value of […]

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