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Ahmanson Deal Clouds Funds for Rare Species

Landowner Washington Mutual has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. If the sale goes through, the state may need to scrounge.

September 25, 2003|Amanda Covarrubias and Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writers

Efforts to protect a rare frog and wildflower found on Ahmanson Ranch will no longer benefit from the deep pockets of landowner Washington Mutual if the property is sold to the state, an official overseeing the protection program said Wednesday.

The Seattle-based bank poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into protecting the red-legged frog and San Fernando Valley spineflower over the last five years as a condition of developing the 2,800-acre oak-studded ranch, said Lenora Kirby, executive director of the Las Virgenes Institute. The institute was established to help protect the threatened species at Ahmanson Ranch.

But with pending state acquisition of the land, protection of the species would rest with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, an arm of the state Resources Agency.

"Actually, you have empty pockets," said Kirby, whose institute had received a $150,000 annual budget from Washington Mutual and whose future is now uncertain. "After the two species were discovered, there was no limit on the budget. My job was to be independent and watch what was going on and blow the whistle if it wasn't done correctly. It was pretty astronomical, the amount of money they spent, and now it's all gone."

A spokesman for Washington Mutual declined to comment on how much money the company spent on species preservation.

Although a budget has not been established for future species protection in the ranch, Rorie Skei, chief deputy director of the conservancy, said every effort would be taken to protect the spineflower and red-legged frog, including restricting hikers to trails, having rangers patrol the park and closing some portions of the property during the frog's mating season.

"Protecting them is a No. 1 priority," Skei said. "The fact that it has sensitive species is part of the absolute delight of the Santa Monica Mountains. It's a treasure trove of rare, endangered and beautiful species, and we want to make sure we have the resources to protect it."

She said one of the ways the conservancy might generate funding for preservation is through issuance of filming permits.

"We're concentrating on acquisition right now, but when that's done, we'll develop a whole management plan," she said.

The state Wildlife Conservation Board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to allocate $135 million toward the $150-million purchase price of Ahmanson Ranch. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has already earmarked $5 million for the acquisition, and the state Coastal Conservancy is expected to vote today on a $10-million contribution.

Skei said the Las Virgenes Institute would continue operating only if "there were an independent fund for it."

But that appears unlikely. Kirby said she has not heard anything from Washington Mutual or the state about the program's future.

"Now that it's not going to be developed, there's no money for environmental protection," Kirby said. "The state doesn't even have money for their payroll."

Written into the environmental impact report for the 3,050-home golf course community that Washington Mutual had planned to build on the property was a stipulation that developers would have to contribute money to an endowment that would pay for preservation indefinitely, Kirby said.

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