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Hidden Beauty : Environmentalists Hope Wetlands Walk Can Open Eyes

December 05, 1985|MIRNA ALFONSO and ERIC BAILEY | Times Staff Writers

LONG BEACH — To some, it has about as much charm as a mud puddle. But to nature lovers like Robert Lamond, the brackish backwaters of Los Cerritos Wetlands have a special beauty.

When Lamond, conservation chairman of the Sierra Club's Long Beach chapter, gazes out over the clumps of pickleweed and shallow, murky bays of the wetlands, he sees a precious resource that needs to be protected--and appreciated.

"You see the tide come in, the birds are around, you see fish jumping and all the various marsh plants," Lamond said. "But some people live around there for years and never realize it's there."

If Lamond has his way, more area residents soon will share his vision of the marshland as an important ecosystem teeming with bird and marine life, an area that provides a vital link in the state's chain of coastal wetlands.

On Saturday, Lamond and other local environmentalists from the Sierra Club and Audubon Society will host a nature walk in an effort to expose the public to the wonders of Los Cerritos Wetlands.

During the tours, which begin at 15-minute intervals between 8:30 and 11 a.m. at Studebaker Road just north of Westminster Avenue, guides will point out various plant and marine life on 30 acres of the wetlands.

While the wetlands checker 241 acres straddling Westminster Avenue just east of Alamitos Bay, only that smaller parcel remains relatively undisturbed by humans.

In recent decades, most of the marshland has been diked and drained to allow oil drilling in the sandy soil far below. Access roads crisscross the area, which is now little more than dry salt-flats covered with scrub.

"If you drive by on the highway, you'd never know there's a wetland out there--it just looks like an oil field," said Wendy Eliot, an analyst with the California Coastal Conservancy, a state agency charged with protecting and enhancing coastal resources.

Ideas for improving Los Cerritos Wetlands abound, but chances remain slim that it will get a face lift soon.

In 1982, the state Coastal Commission approved a plan calling for development of houses, commercial buildings and some light industry on 112 acres in the area. In return for those development rights, 129 acres of wetlands would be re-established in areas that have been damaged by the oil operations. So far, however, no developers have come forward to purchase the land, which is largely owned by Bixby Ranch Co.

"It's been tough trying to find a developer who wants to go in and build in that area and accept that restoration requirement at the same time," Eliot said. "What we need is some altruistic developer dressed in shining armor who's going to come in and take a risk."

Multimillion-Dollar Price

Alyse Jacobson, manager of the conservancy's resource enhancement program, said the state has considered buying the property but has been thwarted because of the land's multimillion-dollar price tag.

Even if the state were to purchase the wetlands, the mineral leases still would be in effect. Since the oil producers plan to drill for another 15 to 20 years, any full-blown restoration of the wetlands would have to be put on hold.

That's where people like Lamond come in.

As he sees it, Los Cerritos Wetlands needs "a constituency," a group of people willing to act as a watchdog until all the oil derricks are gone. Activities like the nature walks, which have been held for the last five years, can only help to win a few backers, he said.

"We're trying to keep this in the public eye," Lamond said.

What many people do not realize is the importance wetlands have in the coastal ecosystem, he said.

Besides being visually pleasing, wetlands act as spawning grounds for many types of fish and are used by birds as way stations during their migration along a route known as the Pacific Flyway, Jacobson said.

Home to Many Bird Species

Dozens of different species of birds also make their homes in wetlands, among them the California least tern, which is on the federal list of endangered species.

Kathy Hieb, a marine biologist who will be on hand for the tours Saturday, said the wetlands are home to many varieties of small fish that are part of the food chain.

In addition, several types of sport fish, such as the California halibut, migrate into wetlands when they are young. These fish use the wetlands as nurseries until they are old enough to fend for themselves at sea, Hieb said.

Through the years, however, most of the coastal wetlands in California have fallen victim to the bulldozer's blade, becoming everything from parking lots to pads for office buildings. Jacobson said 90% of the wetlands in the state are now gone.

"It's only been the last 15 years that people have looked at wetlands as something positive," Jacobson said. "Before that, they've either been drained or filled to create developable land."

Once 2,400 Acres

In the Long Beach area, for instance, there was once about 2,400 acres of wetlands stretching from Belmont Shore to Seal Beach. Development first began eating away at those wetlands when the Marine Stadium was built for rowing events during the 1932 Olympics. The rest has dwindled with construction of the Long Beach Marina and the oil drilling operations.

As wetlands up and down the coast have disappeared, there has been a corresponding decrease in the numbers of migratory birds, Jacobson said. It is a downward spiral that has to stop, she said.

"The fewer wetlands there are," Jacobson said, "the less chance there is our grandchildren will be able to see migrating birds."

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