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Supervisors Order Museum Merger Study : Politics: The plan would have the Museum of Natural History take over the Arboreta and Botanic Gardens. Opposition is developing to the proposal.


The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday ordered a 30-day feasibility study of a proposal to merge the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History with the Arboreta and Botanic Gardens department, but there were strong indications of quickly escalating opposition to the plan.

The board, acting on a motion by Supervisor Mike Antonovich--whose 5th District includes the county's two largest arboretum facilities--unanimously ordered the Citizens Economy and Efficiency Commission to study the merger proposal. The commission was created a decade ago to review possible consolidations of county departments.

Even the decision to approve the preliminary study, however, produced indications among the board that there is uncertainty over how the merger, which has been strongly advocated by the natural history museum, would play out politically. The stiffening of discontent was reminiscent of development of opposition three years ago to an unsuccessful proposal by the natural history museum to take over the privately-owned Southwest Museum in Mount Washington.

In a statement released after the board vote Tuesday morning, the California Arboretum Foundation--the largest of five separate private agencies that raise funds for the arboreta--denounced the merger proposal as a "land grab." "To have this occur while the county is reported to be supportive of Earth Day seems ironic and incongruous," said Alice Frost Thomas, president of the foundation.

Supervisor Ed Edelman told the board he was aware of developing opposition to the merger from among the private arboretum support groups. "They are," said Edelman, "very much concerned about any consolidation that will take from them their independence."

On the other hand, Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, whose district includes the main natural history museum in Exposition Park and its satellite George C. Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, demanded that the natural history museum retain supremacy in any merged natural science facilities complex.

"I won't want to have the Museum of Natural History play second fiddle to flowers," Hahn declared.

The development of a political controversy over the plan prompted Supervisor Pete Schabarum, chairman of the board, to emphasize that approval of the feasibility study does not constitute endorsement of the museum merger. "Nobody should get excited," Schabarum emphasized. "We are just taking a look-see."

Craig Black, director of the natural history museum, declined through a spokeswoman to comment.

Under the merger proposal--disclosed 10 days ago by The Times following several weeks of consideration of the plan by the office of county Chief Administrative Officer Richard Dixon--the natural history and Page museums would take over the Arboreta and Botanic Gardens. The department includes the State and County Arboretum in Arcadia, Descanso Gardens in La Canada-Flintridge, the South Coast Botanic Gardens in Palos Verdes and the Virginia Robinson Estate in Beverly Hills.

The six facilities that would make up the combined agency together have a current fiscal year budget of nearly $20 million. They have a combined total of nearly 400 employees and hosted nearly 2 million visitors last year. Merging the two primary entities would constitute one of the largest consolidations of natural science museum facilities ever undertaken in the United States.

The merged entity--whose name has not yet been determined--would also provide newly constructed facilities for the privately held Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, one of the nation's most significant collections of ornithological materials. The foundation, originally organized by Ed N. Harrison, president of the natural history museum's county-appointed board of governors, has been searching for a new structure for several years.

In recent years, the foundation has tried and failed to find accommodations on the UCLA campus and at Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. In January of this year, Western Foundation officials visited Descanso Gardens to identify potential sites for a new headquarters building with between 20,000 and 40,000 sq. ft. of space.

The merger plan appeared to be developing into a test of wills between the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History Foundation, the private group that financially supports the museum and is legal owner of some of its collections, and the California Arboretum Foundation and the four other arboretum fund-raising groups.

"We are unalterably opposed to such use of land that is supposedly dedicated to environmental purposes," said the arboretum foundation's Thomas. She said the boards of the five fund-raising groups held an emergency meeting last week and met on Monday afternoon with Dixon to express their discontent.

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