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Activist Behind Royce Canyon Remembered

Ecology: Friends, family honor the late Royce Neuschatz, whose efforts to halt a dump expansion preserved recreation area that bears her name.

November 07, 1999|MONTE MORIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While frustrated Valley residents are nearing the end of their long and seemingly losing battle to block a city dump expansion in Granada Hills, joyful Griffith Park enthusiasts gathered Saturday to celebrate a decade-old victory in their own fierce dump battle.

As word spread Saturday that Mayor Richard Riordan will support the expansion of Sunshine Canyon Landfill in Granada Hills despite vehement local protests, roughly three dozen hikers, naturalists and horseback riders gathered in Griffith Park to rededicate Royce Canyon--a plunging swath of parkland that was once slated to be filled with city garbage.

Winded slightly by a steep hike through parched chaparral and along dusty horse trails, the celebrants also recalled the memory of the woman who saved the canyon that now bears her name: Royce Neuschatz.

It was the late Neuschatz, a city recreation and parks commissioner and regional planner, who friends said led a determined campaign to quash the dump proposal roughly 10 years ago.

Neuschatz, who died of cancer at age 57, was recalled by friends and co-workers as a driving force in L.A.'s environmental movement, as well as a lover of music, good food and diverse friendships.

"Royce did so much to motivate people to support the environment," said Andy Lipkis, who, along with Neuschatz, started the environmental group TreePeople. "There was a time when people wrote off L.A. as the black hole of the environment. . . . Today, and partly through Royce's leadership, L.A. has built the largest curbside recycling program in the world."

As hikers recalled Neuschatz's memory Saturday, guides pointed out the towering Toyon Canyon Landfill just a short distance from Royce Canyon. Today, the stepped landfill sits capped and covered by a carpeting of sere grasses and a network of white pipes that shunt underground methane to collection tanks.

In the early 1980s, city officials had hoped to expand the Toyon landfill into what is now Royce Canyon, dubbing it Toyon II. The canyon would have been filled with trash within about 18 months.

Neuschatz's battle against the expansion was different from today's Granada Hills fight in one significant way, said Mary Nichols, secretary of the California Resources Agency and a longtime friend of Neuschatz: Royce Canyon was in a public park.

"She was opposed to this idea that just because there's a hole in the ground, it should be filled with trash," said Nichols, who attended Saturday's event. "Royce saw that as the desecration of the idea of a public park."

Indeed, other friends said that up until the late 1980s, public lands were often targeted as potential sites for unpopular uses such as prisons and dumps.

"It sounds absurd today," said urban planner Arnie Sherwood. "People today have an appreciation now that we don't have enough parkland."

At Sunshine Canyon, residents surrounding the dump expansion area have complained that the landfill may cause health problems. City officials, including the mayor, say that although the proposal is unpopular in the area, the expansion will benefit Los Angeles overall. The landfill proposal must still be approved by the City Council, which has favored the plan in preliminary votes.

Most of those who assembled for the Royce Canyon rededication said they were regular visitors to Griffith Park, but were introduced to it by Neuschatz. Although many were familiar with attractions in the southern part of the park--such as Griffith Observatory and the Greek Theatre--and the zoo and museums to the north, few knew much about the network of hiking and riding trails in between.

Mark Pisano, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Governments, a regional planning agency, said Neuschatz introduced him to the area through horseback riding. He grew to love the area so much that he moved to a house adjacent to the park. Another close friend and aide to the mayor, Tom LaBonge, said he, Neuschatz and the late Charlie Turner--the first honorary mayor of Griffith Park--regularly hiked through the park.

On Saturday, LaBonge led the pack of hikers past thickets of scrub oak, darkened buckwheat and toyon trees. Sweating under the load of his 18-month-old son, Charles, who was strapped to his father's back, LaBonge said he would never forget those hikes.

"We'd hike from the observatory to Mt. Hollywood and talk the whole time," LaBonge said. "It was amazing. By the time we got to the summit, we'd have all the world's problems solved. The trouble is, once we left the summit, it all got away from us."

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