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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

No Mistaking Her Record Fighting for Public Lands

April 29, 1999|PENELOPE G. O'MALLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you ran into Melanie Beck on the trail, you would probably mistake her for a junior ranger on patrol. Don't be fooled by the shy and guarded exterior.

The 36-year-old Thousand Oaks resident is turning into one of the more feared environmental warriors in Southern California.

Her detective work while researching her college master's thesis helped uncover the massive development occurring in the Santa Monica Mountains. Public outrage at the findings in a Times series on the subject led to tighter controls on home construction in sensitive areas.

"I believe in the planning process," Beck said recently. "An area of such national significance as the Santa Monica National Recreation Area should have strict planning compliance."

She cracks one of her wide but infrequent grins. "Frankly, I'd like to see some of the development removed from the mountains and areas restored."

That will probably not happen any time soon, but Beck's investigative talents may prevent any more abuses in the mountains. After her graduate work was completed, she was given the job of outdoor recreation planner by the National Park Service's Department of Planning, Science and Resource Management.

In that position, she watches over trail construction, oversees park planning and--most important--tracks development.

She considers the job a kind of sacred trust. "Over 300 million people own the public lands in the recreation area," Beck said. "I have to determine what is best for the entire public versus individual interests."

"She's awesome," said Beck's boss, Nancy Andrews, director of the Park Service planning department. She praised Beck's relentless work ethic. "For Melanie, there will never be enough hours in the day."

Beck was raised in San Pedro in an environmentally aware family that regularly took in injured squirrels and rabbits. She fell in love with the Santa Monica Mountains as a girl, when her sister went to a Girl Scout camp in Decker Canyon in Malibu. "It was the first time I saw any real, natural landscape in California," she said.

A movie about environmental devastation also fueled her budding interest in nature. "When I was 13, I saw the movie 'Soylent Green.' Doubtless, that dreadful movie had a strong impact on my drive to protect the environment."

After attending Humboldt State University, she went to work as a lowly administrative assistant for the Santa Monica Mountains Resource Conservation District, where she rose to the position of assistant executive officer.

Former colleague Rosi Dagit, a conservation biologist who worked with Beck at the conservation district, remembers an intense young woman who helped her prepare testimony on various development projects in the mountains.

"Melanie was the hub of the wheel," Dagit said. "She kept everything organized and moving."

When she decided she needed more expertise to enable her to pursue her long-held dream of protecting the mountains, Beck went back to school at Cal State Northridge to study geography.

"I was hiking a trail one day and I saw houses blocking the view of the ridgeline. I decided I had to do something about it," she said.

For her 1997 master's thesis, Beck went to the National Park Service and began researching its Geographical Imaging System to track development in the Santa Monicas. The system is a computer map of every parcel in the area. What she found was shocking: Although many of the projects approved in the Calabasas area were supposed to be preserved as open space, only a small portion of the land was left undeveloped.

Currently, the digital sleuth is completing a computerized history of the western end of the recreation area. She is also keeping an eye on the new equestrian center on tap for Newbury Park, near where she lives; the Hills Canyon Golf Course; and the county's largest multipurpose development, Ahmanson Ranch.

Irritated by collapsing stream banks resulting from bad grading on one project she uncovered, Beck coordinated a series of grants that resulted in a million-dollar restoration of the eroding banks.

In a field dominated by men, Beck says both her colleagues and the developers she hounds have been respectful.

Beck thinks a woman's approach to planning is different from a man's. Men tend to stand on principle, she says. Women are more motivated to get things done. She stresses, "We need both."

When she isn't poring over environmental reports the size of telephone books and wading through slick development proposals to check whether they match up with city and county planning documents, Beck walks the mountains with her Italian greyhound. She also tries to find time to practice her flute.

Keeping an eye on development and protecting the recreation area's 500 miles of trails make for a big job, but Beck doesn't mind.

"Every morning when I wake up, I'm glad I have this job," she said. "I want to be remembered for preserving land that would otherwise be lost to development."

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