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ENVIRONMENT : Botanists See More Than Beauty in the Marsh

October 27, 1990|CLARK SHARON | Clark Sharon is a regular contributor to Home Design

"There are environmental issues out there as fascinating as the juiciest murder," said Bill Bretz, hardly sounding like a man about to address a group of botanists and flora fans. "Things are so convoluted and complex that it's like (the movie) "Chinatown"--the more you find out the more incredible it all becomes."

Bretz, manager of the UC Irvine-owned San Joaquin Marsh, is one of the scheduled speakers today at an annual symposium sponsored by the Southern California Botanists, in conjunction with the Cal State Fullerton biology department.

Now, ordinarily, you might expect a bunch of botanists to talk about petals and fronds and all kinds of vegetative generational cycles. But this year's symposium has replaced botany's gentle garden image with the grit and tough talk of environmental survival.

"The theme this year is the management of endangered habitats," explained Bretz, an avowed radical on the subject.

As steward for the last freshwater marsh in Orange County, the UCI biologist will join other speakers from various state agencies as they discuss how best to keep the human species from fouling its own environmental nest.

The organizers of the symposium hope to attract not only botanists, biologists and layman plant lovers to the all-day session, but also representatives from land development companies and environmental impact firms.

"We want people there who are actively altering our landscape," Bretz said. "We want to show them how fragile and interconnected our remaining wilderness really is, and what they can do to help protect it from the impact of human activity."

Alan Schoenherr, a professor of biology at Fullerton College and managing editor of a semimonthly journal published by the Southern California Botanists, said the symposium is actually about the quality of life--especially here in development-mad Orange County.

"Our air quality is still the worst in the nation," he said on a recent afternoon while standing on a weed-covered bluff overlooking the San Joaquin Marsh. "Are you happy with filthy air? Are you happy with the hours you have to spend in your car on the freeways getting to and from places in this county? That's all quality of life. To destroy that quality of life is completely contrary to why people came to Orange County in the first place."

The management and preservation of endangered habitats is one of our best weapons against dirty air, dirty water and a house on every square foot of undeveloped land because it preserves open space, which, in turn, controls population growth--the root, Schoenherr said, of many of our environmental evils.

"There's a certain mind-set that sees no limits when it comes to pouring people into Orange County," he said. "My answer to that is, when the theater's full, you close the door. And the county's full."

Some people, Schoenherr admits, would classify a theater as being full only when people are sitting in the aisles. While he agrees that development will continue in the county, he stresses that wilderness areas must be saved now, or never.

"What you see here is the last of its kind," he said, looking out over the green water ponds of the marsh. Overhead, a red-tailed hawk searched the marsh grasses for grasshoppers and unwary mice. "There were once thousands of acres of wetlands like this in the county. It was an incredibly diverse environment for wildlife. Now, only a few hundred acres remain."

And even these surviving acres--like those in other areas around the county--are threatened by the continued encroachment of development.

The only remaining open space in the immediate marsh area--a stretch of upland bordering the reserve's northwest rim--is slated for a university-approved mixed development of office buildings, townhouses and apartments, according to Bretz. Construction has already begun as massive frameworks rise on land that once served as a natural buffer between marsh and city.

Schoenherr agrees with Bretz and other biologists who say the marsh and other environmentally sensitive areas are slowly being squeezed on all sides.

"This is an ecological island surrounded by a hostile habitat," he explained. "In other words, this is isolation."

It is precisely this environmental isolation that makes it possible for wildlife to exist in a heavily urbanized area such as Orange County, according to Schoenherr. But it is the size of the ecological island that determines whether that wildlife is made up of mountain lions, deer and bobcats, or a scattering of lesser creatures such as lizards and brush mice.

"You need a lot of natural vegetation and open area to support what is called charismatic megafauna, such as the mountain lion," he said.

Predators eat the vegetarians that live on the bushes, plants and weeds that grow in a wild habitat. Going by this formula, Schoenherr said, it takes up to 100 square miles of natural vegetation to support the food chain necessary to feed one hungry mountain lion.

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