Bordered by smokestacks and slag heaps, Ormond Beach hasn't yet caught the wave of ecotourism, but the possibility intrigued more than 100 people gathered on the Oxnard shoreline Saturday.
Toting binoculars and cameras, the crowd traipsed down the beach, on the lookout for natural wonders. Here, a bunch peered down at the slithering tracks of Globose dune beetles; there, a woman shouted that she had spotted a black-legged kittiwake, a gull more common to Siberia than Southern California.
The event came at what environmentalists see as a time of both promise and peril for the relatively unused strand just down the coast from the Hueneme Pier.
Last month, the state cracked down on Halaco, an aluminum recycler that over three decades has spewed out a 40-foot high ridge of gray waste at the edge of the beach's environmentally fragile wetlands. The firm was ordered to stop the deposits by December.
But even as environmental activists celebrated the state's decision, they were troubled by the city of Oxnard's interest in plans for more industrial construction around the beach. In addition to Halaco, the Ormond Beach area already is home to a paper mill, a power plant and a sewage treatment facility.
For all that, an impressive array of migratory birds, some of them fixtures on the endangered lists, touches down at Ormond. Ten percent of the state's California least terns nest on fenced-off patches of sand. Snowy plovers--little puffballs that are barely visible as they skitter down the beach--bunk in the dunes. The pygmy blue, the world's smallest butterfly, flits amid the marsh grasses that support it.
"The good news at Ormond is that there's still a lot to work with--even in a degraded environment," said Wayne Ferren, a wetlands ecologist at UC Santa Barbara. "Think of what it could be if it were cleaned up."
Neighborhood groups want the city to restrict development and turn Ormond's 1,400 acres into a wildlife preserve.
But mindful of boosting their city's tax base, Oxnard officials have expressed interest in several development plans, including a food distributor's proposal for a 50-acre regional headquarters. They say none of the projects would harm the environment, and point to their intent to keep as much as a quarter of the area undeveloped.
The City Council is to discuss the matter at its Tuesday meeting.
At a talk before Saturday's beach outing, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist David Pereksta said a bird refuge could be the ideal economic development scheme for the site.
An Audubon Society member, Pereksta said that bird festivals are "a vital part of the economy" at spots throughout the nation. Bird-rich Ventura County would do well to spread its wings, he said.
When he lived in New Jersey, Pereksta logged 301 bird species on a list he had kept for years, he said. In Ventura County last year, he said he spotted 333.
"People come from all over the U.S. to see the birds on the Channel Islands and they want to know other good birding spots," he said.
Not long ago, a woman from Indiana was on the track of a bird called a red-throated pipit. When she heard that a few were seen on the sod farms of the Oxnard Plain, she called Pereksta to confirm it.
"She said, 'I'll fly out tomorrow,'" he recalled.