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Creating a Home for a Headwater

Preservationists plan a nature center near a Calabasas stream that feeds into L.A. River.

November 25, 2002|Karima A. Haynes | Times Staff Writer

Saying it wants to preserve a piece of the past for future generations, a San Fernando Valley preservationist group plans to open a nature center at a natural headwater of the Los Angeles River in Calabasas.

Mountains Restoration Trust, a Canoga Park-based nonprofit organization that purchases, restores and preserves open space in the Santa Monica Mountains, is expected to close escrow early next month on a six-acre parcel at Mulholland Highway and Old Topanga Canyon Road that includes a stream that feeds into the river.

The property, known as Headwater Corners, is home to a variety of ecosystems that provide a window into the area's past and offer clues to preserve it for the future, trust officials said.

"This is the perfect location to demonstrate a mutually beneficial coexistence between humans and nature," said Steve Harris, the trust's president and executive director.

Once escrow closes, the trust intends to spend a year working with landscape architects, civil engineers, river scientists and other preservation experts to restore the land and create two nature centers.

The trust has worked closely with Calabasas, Los Angeles County, and state and federal officials for several years to acquire and preserve open space, trust officials said. Since 2000, more than 88 parcels totaling 107 acres valued at more than $7.3 million have been purchased for $1.5 million.

Calabasas, a community of 20,000 in western Los Angeles County, takes pride in its rustic charm and is willing to enter into public-private partnerships to protect its mountains and woodlands, said Mayor Lesley Devine.

"People come here because it's so beautiful -- the natural terrain, oaks and hawks," Devine said. "There are some cities with spectacular architecture, but that's not our beauty. It's the natural beauty that makes the difference here."

Under the development plan, the trust will convert two houses on the site into interpretive centers where residents and schoolchildren can learn how to protect the sensitive mountain region in which they live.

"We come out here with our urban sensibilities and we have no idea about native plants, wildlife or flood control," Harris said. "We want to be able to influence our neighbors to protect the health of what they own."

The former Masson family homestead is one of the two houses that will be converted into nature centers, Harris said. The 100-year-old white clapboard house is nestled beneath a canopy of mature oaks and pines a stone's throw from the headwater.

In its heyday, the single-story dwelling with a fieldstone foundation was an important stop along a stagecoach route between Calabasas and Los Angeles because of its proximity to water, a precious resource in the parched Santa Monica Mountains.

The second dwelling, the Bartelle house, is a low-slung, adobe-style house built in the 1950s. The front of the house features a glassed-in atrium looking out onto a broad lawn near the edge of the headwater.

"If I close my eyes -- and block out the sound of the traffic -- I can almost imagine what it was like here back in 1899," said project manager Debbie O'Hare, leading a recent tour of the property.

A licensed real estate agent with a passion for the environment, O'Hare sold two acres she owned to the trust for the nature center project.

Standing at the edge of the headwater, O'Hare explained that the narrow stream snaking through a thick stand of trees and brush flows through Dry Canyon Creek in Calabasas to Arroyo Calabasas in Woodland Hills and eventually into the Los Angeles River in Canoga Park.

The headwater and its environs support five ecosystems, O'Hare said: a wetland, coast live oak, coastal sage scrub, native grassland and valley oak. Preservationists intend to remove nonnative plants to encourage growth of indigenous species.

"The interpretive centers will help to show the interrelationship between man and nature," Harris said, "and we will be part of that educational process."

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