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WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : Butterfly Safety Net : Expiration of a $430,000 grant worries volunteers working to restore the dunes near LAX where the El Segundo blue flourishes.

October 13, 1994|DEBORAH SCHOCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They stride across the dunes like foot soldiers in some ecological army, sporting T-shirts emblazoned with a single blue butterfly.

Some stoop to do battle with the alien ice plant and brushy acacia trees that threaten the El Segundo dunes.

Others kneel in the sand to plant native shrubs that vanished from this seaside kingdom long before many members of this volunteer gardening army were born.

What has brought these volunteers here, weekend after weekend, is a heartfelt vision that time can be rolled back and the dunes restored.

Their mission is to rebuild an ecosystem that vanished a generation ago as urban Los Angeles pressed toward the sea. They operate by a simple but delicate equation: banishing the ice plant and other non-native species while nurturing coast buckwheat, the El Segundo blue butterfly that feeds on it and a myriad of other plants and insects that once called the dunes home.

The group's icon is the El Segundo blue, a federal endangered species whose primary home is this fragile snippet of dune-scape wedged between sprawling Los Angeles International Airport and the sea.

Today, the ice plant is nearly vanquished. The butterfly is flourishing, up from 400 10 years ago to more than 10,000 today. But on this misty October morning, what should have been a celebratory event--a salute to a job nearly finished--takes on a somber cast.

Triggering concern is the Oct. 7 end of the $430,000 grant that financed restoration work under the direction of Rudi Mattoni of Beverly Hills, who has received national attention for his fight to save the El Segundo blue.

Now, no one knows for sure how the dunes will be protected in years to come.

"Who looks after these plants that we've just planted?" asks a frustrated Mattoni.

The El Segundo dunes is at a crossroads. When the grant expired last week, responsibility for the area moved from the city Department of Environmental Affairs to the city Department of Airports, which owns the dunes.

The juxtaposition is a curious one: LAX, the nation's third-busiest airport, high-tech launching pad for hundreds of jumbo jets each @day, is charged with protecting the habitat of a fluttering thumbnail-size butterfly.

Although an airport official promises to "do the right thing by the dunes," some environmentalists are nervous that a mammoth agency accustomed to dealing with high-powered airlines and fast-flying machines may not fully grasp the importance of buckwheat and insects. After Mattoni began studying the dunes for the Department of Airports in 1984, he discovered that it contained 28 plants and animals that are native to the Southern California dunes system.

But years of development and soil contamination helped foster non-native species, he reported, threatening the survival of native wildlife.

As departing jets screech overhead on this overcast Sunday, Mattoni and his supporters issue a rallying cry to about 60 people gathered at the dunes for the last scheduled volunteer cleanup-and-planting effort.

"The work is not done," said Jon Earl, director of Rhapsody in Green, a Los Angeles environmental group that has championed the dunes.

As the volunteers weed and plant, Mattoni, 66, stands slightly apart, ear protectors cupped around his neck, observing the activity with deep blue eyes that nearly match the blue of the butterfly imprinted on his T-shirt.

In a playful moment, he disappears under a tattered, turquoise-colored tarp until his head re-emerges through a hole in the center.

Then, as giggling teen-agers watch, he slowly flaps his tarp-covered arms.

"Sweet butterfly . . ." he sings under his breath.

*

Mattoni's life has been intrinsically tied to blue butterflies--the El Segundo blue he has helped preserve at the dunes, the Palos Verdes blue butterfly he rediscovered in San Pedro this spring.

Yet the butterfly is simply a metaphor, he says, of the complex native ecosystem that is slowly taking root again.

Mattoni, a UCLA visiting lecturer in geography and environmental science, talks passionately of the dunes' other crown jewels, the 11 species of plants and animals that can be found only on this narrow strip of sand: the El Segundo goat moth, the El Segundo Jerusalem cricket, the Lange's dunes weevil, the El Segundo spineflower, the El Segundo crab spider.

He sounds astonished that others might not notice the mysteries to be found here. It is baffling to him that Angelenos can be obsessed with saving the Amazon rain forest--even reporting the acres lost on a lighted digital monitor outside the Beverly Center's Hard Rock Cafe--while they ignore the home-grown wonders just west of LAX.

Mattoni found his first blue butterfly 50 years ago mounted in a cardboard box at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

At the time, he was a schoolboy fascinated by butterflies, collecting them, puzzling over the colors of caterpillars that clung to the bush outside his bedroom window in Beverly Hills.

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