"I want to assure those people that we're not going to turn our backs on the work they've done," Phil Depoian, Department of Airports deputy executive director, promised last week.
But Mattoni says the airport has promised only that he can volunteer at the dunes for an additional 30 days. He has no idea if he will be allowed on the site after that time, he said.
Galanter has written airport officials to urge them to plan for long-term maintenance. She said last week that she is "reasonably optimistic" that the airport can be persuaded to arrange for that maintenance, which she estimates would cost about $45,000 annually.
Some environmental groups have banded together to form the Coastal Dunes Conservancy, hoping to provide management and scientific expertise for preserving the dunes, said Fred Heath, president of the Los Angeles Audubon Society.
At the Department of Airports, Depoian said last week that he does not know enough about the conservancy plan to say if it is feasible.
Meanwhile, environmentalists hope the airport will continue to allow the hands-on volunteer work that they say has been key to the restoration's success.
"It surprises me that I feel this way about this pile of sand," said Heath.
"There's something very different about pulling out weeds and planting plants," Heath said, "a rush that I've never gotten from saving a piece of land by political means."
As the dunes restoration project wound down Friday, Mattoni stacked nursery pots from the El Segundo project into his faded Volvo station wagon and drove them across the South Bay to a little-known military fuel depot in San Pedro.
Here, during a routine biological survey in March, Mattoni and fellow researchers found the Palos Verdes blue butterfly, believed to have been extinct for a decade. The area had never before been surveyed for butterflies.
Like its distant El Segundo cousin, the Palos Verdes blue is classified as an endangered species, and only about 200 were estimated to be living last spring at the U.S. Navy's Defense Fuel Supply Point near Western Avenue.
But if Mattoni has his way, those numbers will grow. He hopes to restore the area much as he has the LAX dunes, re-vegetating it with native plants such as the locoweed upon which the Palos Verdes blue feeds.
As he stored the nursery pots in a fuel depot bunker last week, he glanced at the thick carpet of green ice plant nearby.
He grimaced. "There you go. That's got to come out," he said.
The politics of a fuel-depot restoration may prove simpler than the dunes project. The land is owned by the U.S. Navy, which Mattoni says has supported his efforts so far. The depot is a park-like area, with 26 tanks below ground and only three aboveground, posing little interference for the butterfly.
The Palos Verdes blue is a relatively unknown butterfly, compared to the El Segundo blue. It apparently vanished from the Palos Verdes Peninsula in the early 1980s, after most of its breeding sites were destroyed by housing development, fire control and the expansion of a city park. At the time, its disappearance was believed to be the first time a creature protected by the Endangered Species Act had become extinct.
Despite front-page reports of its re-emergence last spring, the Palos Verdes blue is relatively unknown, lacking the political and popular backing of the El Segundo blue.
So Jess Morton of the Palos Verdes/South Bay Audubon Society hopes to build up public support for the butterfly. He wants to see schoolchildren help in the restoration, much as they helped restore the El Segundo dunes.
"Here, although we have something that was lost because of lack of concern, we have a second chance," Morton said, "and we rarely have that."
Mattoni's natural ebullience surfaces as he talks of planting locoweed for the butterfly to feed on. He begins ticking off the other key native plants for the fuel-depot ecosystem: California sagebrush, black sage, bush sunflower.
"It's just like the dunes," he explained. "By doing what you can do to save the butterfly, you're going to augment the whole community, and therefore everything will benefit . . .
"We'll go from one rebirth to another."