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Going Wild in the Middle of L.A.

April 29, 2001

Wildlife in Northeast Los Angeles? Bird-watching along the Pasadena Freeway?

Mockingbirds, goldfinches and warblers already know Ernest E. Debs Regional Park as a natural oasis high above the graffiti and grit of industrial Los Angeles. This vast, quiet place is one reason why Los Angeles County is home to the second-highest concentration of bird species of any county in the nation; only San Diego has more. Once the Audubon Society's planned urban nature center is completed, more of us wingless folks will come to know Debs Park's many charms.

Debs Park is 282 acres of grasslands and trees and home to more than 130 species of birds. Yet many residents of nearby Mt. Washington, Highland Park and South Pasadena have never been there, and the park is all but unknown farther afield.

Its lofty hillside location makes Debs Park ideal for Audubon's first-ever urban venture. Get out on one of the trails and the city recedes into a backdrop against which you can take in the pleasures of birds and wildflowers in their natural habitat. The Los Angeles City Council has leased a 16-acre parcel in the park to Audubon for the nature center. When completed in 2003, the 10,000-square-foot center will include an amphitheater, nature exhibits and a hummingbird garden. The society will also work with the city to improve access and to restore native vegetation throughout the park.

Some 30,000 elementary school children live within just two miles of the park. Many are from poor families with little chance to vacation where the wild things are or even to venture to local beaches. The proposed Audubon center represents a deliberate effort to instill an appreciation of nature in the city-bound and broaden the society's constituency beyond its traditional white, suburban base.

A second urban center is slated for Prospect Park in Brooklyn. If these two are successful, a string of others could follow.

The next hurdle is fund-raising. Audubon needs to raise $15.5 million for the Debs Park center, to build and operate it. So far the group has pledges for $4.6 million. With continued imagination and commitment, this project should soon take flight.

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