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Urban Bird Land : Flora, Fauna Find Natural Niche Between Freeways in Whittier Sanctuary

August 03, 1986|STEVEN R. CHURM | Times Staff Writer

It is an oasis, a thick, overgrown plot of land that is flanked by two freeways and a string of industrial parks.

It is also a refuge for thousands of birds that pause to feed, rest and nest on their migratory flights north and south.

And it is a reminder to all who walk in the Whittier Narrows Wildlife Sanctuary of a Southern California that has long since vanished in the blur of development.

Ten years ago, a coalition of environmental and nature groups successfully battled the County of Los Angeles to preserve a chunk of the Whittier Narrows wetlands and bush along the San Gabriel River.

Today, nearly 50,000 people, many of them schoolchildren, visit the 277-acre sanctuary and its aging nature center each year. What they discover is one of the last habitats of its kind in the region. Plants, small animals and birds found only in low-lying river basins flourish in the sanctuary sandwiched between Pico Rivera and South El Monte in county territory.

Mule Deer, Bobcat

It was common years ago to spot a herd of mule deer or a bobcat in the sanctuary. But no more.

Freeways, fences and flood control channels now prevent larger animals from reaching the preserve bounded by Durfee Avenue, the San Gabriel River and Siphon Road. These days, squirrels, rabbits and other small critters have the run of the sanctuary.

But they share it--with the birds, tens of thousands of birds that flock to the sanctuary's four lakes, which are like safe harbors in a sea of concrete. Through the years, about 270 species have been identified in the habitat, including several rare and endangered species. Come spring and fall, birds blanket the lakes as they touch down to rest before continuing north or south.

Naturalists say the importance of Whittier Narrows is its location--freeway-close to several million urbanites.

"Man needs some raw nature around to remind him of where he has come from," said Jake Muller, president of the Whittier chapter of the National Audubon Society.

Bettie Pellett, treasurer of the Whittier Narrows Nature Center, believes the sanctuary offers something else.

"Solitude, a chance to recharge yourself away from the telephone, the microwave oven and traffic," said the retired Montebello education consultant. "Take a walk there and you feel like you're miles from civilization."

Sort of.

In the distance, the steady hum of traffic on the Pomona and San Gabriel River freeways can be heard from almost every clearing. Against an often smoggy backdrop, dozens of high-voltage lines crisscross the fenced sanctuary.

And there's evidence that visitors tote more than cameras and binoculars into the area, which can be entered only at the nature center or by special arrangement through several chained gates along Durfee. Beer cans, candy wrappers and wine bottles are often pitched in shady spots around the sanctuary's lakes. Bicycles and horses, both banned from the habitat, have also left telltale marks from time to time on the sandy trails.

But Bill Burrall, chairman of a Whittier Narrows support group that leads nature walks for schoolchildren, believes the wear and tear on the sanctuary is the trade-off for trying to maintain a wildlife habitat in a heavily urbanized region.

The alternative, he said, is to pave it over and "remember it all in pictures and books."

Water has always been plentiful in Whittier Narrows.

The area is a natural flood basin where the water table is relatively high and the soil rich, ideal for lush stream-side plant growth. A pair of rivers, the San Gabriel and the Rio Hondo, flow through the basin. They nearly converge as they pass through a "narrow" gap where the Montebello Hills and Puente Hills come together south of the sanctuary.

Hence the name, Whittier Narrows.

The Gabrieleno Indians were the first to settle among the area's wild elderberry bushes and oak trees that still dominate the landscape today.

Then came the first Americans in the late 1880s, who Burrall said were "astonished by the abundance of birds."

To carve out a permanent niche for wildlife, the Audubon Society in 1939 purchased about 100 acres of land on the west bank of the San Gabriel River and established a sanctuary.

Recreation Area

Rapid development downstream, however, prompted the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s to build the Whittier Narrows Dam, and the basin behind the dam became a 1,000-acre playground for boaters, skeet shooters and horseback riders which is known today as the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area. The federal government owned the land, but it was managed by the county's Department of Parks and Recreation, which in 1970 also acquired control of the Audubon's wildlife sanctuary.

Four years later, however, environmental and nature groups closed ranks when the county announced plans to dredge one of the basin's lakes that had been fenced off to the public and stock it for fishing. Conservationists filed a lawsuit, claiming that the lake was an important nesting site for birds that would be disturbed if opened for fishing.

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