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Group May Rescue Refuge

The Audubon Society is threatening to reclaim the neglected and closed Modjeska Canyon wildlife sanctuary from Cal State Fullerton.

May 24, 2003|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

Angry that Cal State Fullerton has closed and failed to maintain a Modjeska Canyon bird sanctuary, the Audubon Society is threatening to take it back from the university foundation to which it was entrusted.

Neighbors of the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary said the university closed it to the public without warning last fall, and has permitted the bulldozing of a creek bed on the property without regulatory approvals. They complained to foundation officials, and also alerted the birding group.

Carolyn Oppenheimer, president of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society, sent a sternly worded letter to the university this week, taking issue with what she called the sanctuary's physical neglect and "inappropriate maintenance," citing the bulldozing among other problems.

"We feel we have no choice but to seriously consider the exercise of our right [to seize Tucker] so that we may select another owner-operator who will be more responsible," Oppenheimer wrote.

A university official said Friday that plans are being developed to refurbish the sanctuary and improve facilities for public use -- and that the Audubon group was unaware of these.

For more than 30 years, the 12-acre site at the end of Modjeska Canyon Road has been run by the university's foundation and dedicated to the preservation of animals and native plants.

The property was donated to the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society in 1939 by Ben and Dorothy Tucker. The society gave it to the university's foundation in 1968 with a conditional deed.

"Audubon has the right to legally ask for it back," Oppenheimer said.

In a telephone interview Friday, Oppenheimer said she was shocked to learn recently that the sanctuary had closed and that the creek was stripped of overgrown vegetation.

According to area residents, a neighbor bulldozed portions of the creek bed, destroying native plants in the process, without getting approvals from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state Department of Fish and Game.

Since the on-site manager left the sanctuary on Sept. 25, it has been closed, but neighbors said the university neglected to tell anyone, inform the public or post a sign.

Every weekend since, dozens of motorists travel up the canyon road, park, then walk over and are puzzled by the closure, said Dean Brown, a Modjeska resident since 1977.

"We were the ones who finally contacted the university and asked, 'What's going on?' " Brown said.

He and other concerned neighbors formed Friends of Tucker Wildlife & Bird Sanctuary to find, if necessary, an organization to take control. Candidates include the county's Harbors, Beaches and Parks, the National Audubon Society and Silverado Modjeska Recreation and Parks District, Brown said.

Karon Cornell, director of the university's community relations, said the university's foundation has many plans for improving Tucker.

"We are in the process of hiring a coordinator," Cornell said, adding that the university is preparing a response to Oppenheimer's letter.

She said the university has put together a list of repairs, including new fencing, seating for visitors along pathways, and hand rails for a creek bridge and railing near a pond. Some of the projects, including enhancements to the sanctuary's amphitheater, still need donors before they can begin, however.

As for the bulldozing, Cornell said it was done to remove overgrown vegetation and eliminate a fire hazard after the former sanctuary manager expressed concerns.

Brown and other residents are doubtful of the university's intentions.

University officials discussed planned improvements and made promises last October at a meeting attended by more than 80 canyon residents. At the very least, a new manager would be hired by January, Brown said they were told.

"Now it's May and still no manager," Brown said.

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