With its coastal, desert, and alpine landscapes, Los Angeles County has a natural diversity almost unequaled in the world. In recognition of this, and under pressure from the courts, officials a decade ago created a network of "Significant Ecological Areas" to save remnants of that rich natural heritage.
Ranging from austere desert buttes and ancient oak savannahs to deep canyons, coastal dunes and wetlands, the areas were selected for their value as habitat and migration corridors for wildlife, or as strongholds for threatened plants, animals and birds.
The 61 SEAs were mostly privately owned, but the county's 1980 General Plan made it official policy to protect them from incompatible development and to try to acquire those most threatened.
Since then, the SEAs have suffered from obscurity and neglect, an investigation by The Times has found. SEAs have been nibbled by development, and, with other open space dwindling, are under enormous pressure from big housing and commercial projects, proposed roads and even garbage dumps.
One area alone--the Palo Comado SEA in Agoura--is targeted by four residential and commercial projects. A proposed project of 1,900 homes and a golf course would cover 300 acres of an SEA in Valencia. And at the edge of the Ballona Creek SEA near Marina del Rey, a proposed city-within-a-city called Playa Vista is envisioned with 11,750 housing units and parking for 25,000 cars.
"I think the SEAs are struggling to survive," said Tim Thomas, a biologist and member of a county advisory committee on the SEAs. "We're . . . getting a wave of requests to develop in SEAs, to use SEAs to . . . put trash in and to put houses on, and these things are all incompatible with the intent of the designation of the SEAs."
But Dave Vannatta, an aide to County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, said that the SEAs have been reasonably protected and that development within them "has been compatible with the resource."
Don Knabe, an aide to Supervisor Deane Dana, said the supervisors rely on county planning staff for advice on land-use matters, adding that that he was not aware of any controversy concerning the SEAs.
Los Angeles County is not solely in charge of the SEAs' fate. Some are within municipal boundaries, where county land-use regulations do not apply.
Still, had the county made the SEAs a priority, development conflicts would have been reduced. But management of the SEAs has been a serious failure, interviews and public records show. Consider:
* The county did not fulfill the commitment made a decade ago to "actively search for funding mechanisms at all governmental levels" to purchase SEAs. The proposed county parks bond issue that failed at the polls Nov. 6 would have provided the first funds to purchase SEAs.
* County planning officials have not monitored development in SEAs and don't know which areas are intact or degraded. Without such basic data, informed decisions on new development plans in SEAs are impossible. Yet county supervisors have turned down requests for funds to study the status of the SEAs.
* The county itself is a threat to SEAs. For example, county transportation plans call for eventual extension of Thousand Oaks Boulevard through the Palo Comado SEA in Agoura, an expanse of grassy hills and stately oaks that supports deer, bobcats, coyotes, and golden eagles. The county also has declared three canyons in SEAs in the Santa Susana and Santa Monica mountains to be suitable sites for future trash dumps.
"If we take a so-what attitude towards the SEAs, we're taking a so-what attitude toward the . . . ecosystems of the rest of the world, and the ecosystems are what support our lives," said Dick Friesen, a biologist and consultant who chairs the Significant Ecological Area Technical Advisory Committee, or SEATAC, a panel of biologists that advises the county on development in SEAs.
"If we can't retain the SEAs in Los Angeles County, where there's a big population base and a big economic base to do it," it will be impossible to do in poorer parts of the world, he said.
Even when portions of SEAs have been preserved, it has required big concessions to developers. Consider two recent agreements that have been hailed as environmental triumphs.
In one case, Los Angeles airport officials agreed to preserve 200 acres of the El Segundo Dunes SEA west of Los Angeles International Airport, while developing a golf course on 100 other acres.
In the other case, environmentalists and developers settled years of litigation over the Ballona Creek SEA, which includes one of Southern California's last surviving tidal wetlands.
The developers agreed to preserve and help restore about 270 acres of the wetlands. In return, environmentalists agreed not to fight plans for the huge Playa Vista development overlooking the preserve, which is to include 11,750 apartment and condominium units, 2,400 hotel rooms and 5.7 million square feet of office and retail space.
Other SEAs are also threatened.