The Los Cerritos wetlands looks like a mall waiting to happen.
The dusty expanse of oil pumps and cracked earth is flanked by stores, multiplexes and parked cars. Above it all rises the red and yellow turret of Tower Records, topped with a giant purple neon sign reading, "Wow!"
But all is not what it seems here on the Long Beach-Seal Beach border, where the San Gabriel River meets the sea.
A blue-green tide pool glints behind the oil tanks. An egret sails above snarled traffic, and halibut and bass weave through water beneath a bridge.
Remnants of the natural world persist at Los Cerritos, the largest privately owned wetlands along the Los Angeles and Orange County coasts, and for two decades, state agencies and environmentalists have tried and failed to buy parts of the 400-acre marsh to save it from further development and neglect.
State officials will announce Tuesday that they quietly bought 66 acres of the marsh in Long Beach in late June, the first piece of Los Cerritos to pass into public hands. The purchase is being hailed as the start of an ambitious project to buy and restore the entire wetlands.
The state Wildlife Conservation Board is trying to purchase an adjoining 100-acre section of the marsh in Seal Beach in Orange County by the end of the year. Seal Beach residents have sought that piece of Los Cerritos, on land known as the Hellman Ranch, for decades.
"Everyone has broken their picks on this project for 20 years -- and now, finally, there is a breakthrough," said Reed Holderman, western regional director at the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit group that bought the 66-acre property with state and private funds and transferred it to public ownership.
Scientists call the land a crucial missing link in preserving Southern California's fast-disappearing salt marshes, noting that available land already has been bought up at better-known wetlands such as Ballona near Marina del Rey and Bolsa Chica in Huntington Beach.
"Los Cerritos is really the last frontier," said Sam Schuchat, executive officer of the California Coastal Conservancy, a lead agency in last month's purchase.
But no one expects the marshes to be transformed into a picture-postcard landscape overnight.
Home Depot is readying plans for 155,000 square feet of commercial space on 17 acres at the northern edge of Los Cerritos, just 200 feet from the wetlands and half a mile upriver from the new state purchase.
The owner of the largest part of the wetlands, Bixby Ranch Co., has not agreed to sell any of the 187 acres it owns. And restoring wetlands is costly; the Bolsa Chica project in Orange County is nearing $150 million.
Key to the recent purchase is an unusual arrangement in which a private company will continue to pump oil from the marshes, even as they are being restored. Such an approach may help entice other Los Cerritos owners to sell, officials said.
The 66-acre parcel, appraised at $14 million in 2003, was purchased for $10 million from members of the Bryant family, which donated $4 million worth of the land. The Coastal Conservancy, a state agency, contributed $7 million, and the remaining $3 million came from Signal Hill Petroleum Inc., as payment for the oil rights.
The Bryants' attorney, F. Kevin Brazil, said the family didn't want to comment on the deal.
Signal Hill Petroleum has agreed to study how to consolidate its roads and pumps, and to clean up contamination if any is found there, said Belinda Faustinos, executive officer of the new Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority, which now owns the land.
Los Cerritos is a textbook example of just how hard it can be to preserve wetlands in Southern California, which already has lost 95% of its coastal marshes to development.
Land along the region's coastline ranks among the most expensive in the nation, so some wetlands are too pricey for the public to buy. Oil operations fended off development at Los Cerritos and Bolsa Chica, but they can leave behind contaminated soils, boosting costs.
And so-called "degraded wetlands" such as Los Cerritos just don't make it into Sierra Club calendars or many potential donors' hearts.
Ballona became a pet cause of the environmental elite in Santa Monica, Venice and Marina del Rey. Bolsa Chica has the added attraction of paralleling Bolsa Chica State Beach, a popular surfing spot.
But Los Cerritos has never been a cause celebre, in part because it is divided between two counties and two cities. Most Long Beach politicians have ignored the marshland; its most stalwart champion, former Councilman Frank Colonna, lost a campaign for mayor in June.