Visitors one day may be able to observe great blue herons, least terns and other wildlife in their natural habitat under plans the National Audubon Society has for a "living museum" on the Ballona Wetlands.
"The public will be able to view the marsh, making them feel they are part of the habitat, so they will be much more sensitized about what's out there," said Eric Metz at a recent meeting of the society's Santa Monica chapter. "We want to provide naturalistic settings so the (animal) doesn't look out of context, but part of the environment."
Metz, hired by the society in March after serving as head of wetlands projects for the California Coastal Commission, is in charge of restoring the Ballona Wetlands.
Although work will not begin until 1987, Metz has already come up with some ideas for the 175-acre wetlands that make up one of the last tidal marshes in California. The wetlands contain a wide variety of marine plants, birds, fish and mammals.
They are owned by Summa Corp., which wants to build a $1-billion condominium and marina project in other sections of the 926-acre area between Marina del Rey and Playa del Rey.
Los Angeles County, with the support of the Coastal Commission, forced Summa in 1984 to find a nonprofit agency to take over and run the wetlands in order to build in the area. The county also required the company to give the agency $10 million to manage the wetlands. Summa chose the Audubon Society last February after more than a year of negotiations.
Metz said the society hopes to construct The Audubon Living Museum at Ballona Creek on a half acre that will include wildlife exhibits, aviaries, a laboratory and windowed observation deck.
A restaurant, bookstore and gift shop will help the society cover operating costs, Metz said.
"This has to be a self-sustaining facility," he said. "Receipts have to be coming into the museum so that it doesn't put a burden on the society. It (Audubon) can't support it with its own revenues."
The project, said Metz, will probably cost more than $10 million, and the society will have to attract private funds to complete financing.
One proposed major exhibit, Metz said, is the Pacific flywater section where large flocks of Canadian geese could land for brief visits during migratory periods.
Metz also foresees a jukebox, which would associate the sounds of animals with their pictures, and a camouflage exhibit showing how some birds use marsh weeds to hide their nests from predators.
Water tanks set at eye level would display fish living in the wetlands and other tanks would contain wildlife that visitors could handle. Another exhibit would allow people to look at shellfish and other organisms that live beneath the surface of the wetlands.
The society hopes to increase the flow of fresh water into the northern section of the wetland by diverting water from the Ballona Channel, Metz said.
A small island known as Least Tern Island--which the society hopes to rename Bird Island--would be recontoured to make it easier for herons and other birds to nest, Metz said. Also, a new tidal connection may be added next to the island to increase the tidal level there.
In addition, a system of small, fresh water ponds would be placed near the museum. The society plans to pump water out of nearby Centinella Creek to a storm sewer, clean it and pump it back into the ponds, instead of buying water from the city.
Inside the southern portion of the wetlands, the society will share some of its land with the Southern California Gas Co., which maintains a facility to store natural gas inside dry oil wells as deep as 4,000 feet.
"Southern California Gas will be our neighbors in perpetuity," Metz said.
The Coastal Commission is requiring the society to provide a four-lane road running north and south through the wetlands. Metz said Audubon wants to set the road as low as possible so it will not be seen and high enough to allow water to flow beneath it.
Organic changes include bulldozing plants growing on sand dunes to make way for sage brush in an environmentally sensitive area of Ballona's southern section. A grove of eucalyptus trees in the southern portion will be removed and replaced eventually by sycamores that also occur naturally in the area.
"The planting of the coastal sage, the dune restoration--it's all a challenge as well as an opportunity to document the process to see what (the wetlands) will become one day," Metz said. "This is part of a microcosm of the wetland world, but an important part of the coastal area."