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Biologist Bushwhacks His Way to Court

October 11, 2006|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

He has spent decades working to protect Los Angeles' endangered Ballona Wetlands.

But did environmentalist Roy van de Hoek go too far when he took his pruning shears to a nonnative tree and plants in the Westside nature preserve?

Los Angeles prosecutors say yes. They have filed six vandalism counts against Van de Hoek, alleging that he entered the wetlands without permission and destroyed city parks property when he cut down the invasive plants. If convicted, he could face six years in prison and fines of up to $15,000.

Conservationists who support the veteran ecologist disagree. They assert that the prosecution is simply payback from those who for years have felt the sting of Van de Hoek's activism. The case, they suggest, is designed to scare away others from actively harvesting invasive plants from local nature preserves.

Van de Hoek has not denied cutting the plants. Characterizing the eradication work as a continuation of his years of plant removal in the wetlands, he said he intends to plead not guilty to the charges Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court. But for now, he has been banned from leading tours and doing rehabilitation work at the wetlands, where Ballona Creek meets the ocean south of Marina del Rey.

"My entire life has been dedicated to conservation, preservation and restoration of endangered species and wild lands," said Van de Hoek, 50, of Playa del Rey.

The proliferation of such vegetation in ecologically sensitive areas has become a major issue with conservationists, who worry that it squeezes out native plants. Though the trend in landscaping has been toward planting native foliage, even natural areas such as the Ballona Wetlands still have many nonnative plants that have taken root over the years, from seeds carried by birds and the wind.

The Friends of Ballona Wetlands, which has assumed a major role in the restoration of the onetime marshy area, has condemned what it calls "its continuing deterioration because of nonnative plant invasions."

The dispute illustrates the deep passions that continue to surround the 600-acre preserve despite what seemed three years ago to be a peaceful conclusion to an emotional 20-year campaign to save the wetlands.

The state agreed in 2003 to spend $140 million to purchase acreage in the wetlands from the developers of Playa Vista. As part of the deal, builders of the residential project scaled back their plans and donated hundreds of additional acres as open space.

But relations have remained strained among some of the nearly two dozen groups that have environmentalist-sounding "Ballona Wetlands" names. Some of the organizations favored a total ban on development to preserve all open space as part of the wetlands. Others preferred fostering a working relationship with developers that would focus preservation on the wettest parts of the land.

That has led to some groups being branded "radical extremists" and others "sellouts."

The misdemeanor criminal complaints were issued by Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo. They allege that Van de Hoek took shears to a pair of city-owned myoporum shrubs without authorization in August 2005 and to a city-owned ficus tree in March.

The charges are not the first for Van de Hoek, a trained biologist who has worked for the federal and local governments. Nine years ago he was convicted of misdemeanor vandalism for cutting down nonnative eucalyptus trees at the federally owned Carrizo Plain National Monument in Central California. He was sentenced to community service: removing nonnative plants from state parkland near Morro Bay.

As his arraignment approaches, the current case remains murkier than the brackish freshwater-saltwater mix that all hope will someday rejuvenate the Ballona Wetlands.

Van de Hoek's supporters insist that the city's parks department has no jurisdiction over the land where the myoporums were allegedly cut because it is owned by the state's Department of Fish and Game.

That agency has issued permits to two environmental groups to weed out invasive vegetation from wetland areas -- something that would have covered Van de Hoek if he did remove any shrubs.

Some suggest that the prosecution is political in nature, a reward to Playa Vista developers who have contributed to Delgadillo and whose project has been a target of Van de Hoek's activism over the years.

Playa Vista President Steve Soboroff scoffs at that notion.

"I donated to Rocky Delgadillo's campaign for attorney general," he said. "But I also donated to Jerry Brown. Playa Vista supported them both."

Soboroff said no one from the 5,846-unit Playa Vista project pushed for Van de Hoek's prosecution.

Nick Velasquez, a spokesman for Delgadillo, also denied that the plant-cutting case was rooted in politics.

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