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Conflict grows over Griffith recovery plan

The fire-ravaged park is sprouting new plant life. Differing ideas on how to protect that growth is dividing Los Angeles officials and activists.

July 24, 2007|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

Griffith Park looks like it can't wait to come back.

Fresh clumps of red-fringed chaparral, sustained on the moisture from dew and fog, already dot the park's ash-covered hillsides. Bursts of new growth resembling unkempt beards can be seen on trees that were left bare by the May 8 wildfires.

As the park's plant life returns, city officials are working out the next formal stage of the Griffith Park recovery.

City Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose 4th District includes the park, is among those who oppose the Department of Recreation and Parks keeping many hiking trails closed through the fall.

LaBonge has lobbied parks department General Manager Jon Mukri to open up more trails, particularly the routes to Mt. Hollywood and Bee Rock.

Parks Planning Director Michael Shull said his department was determined not to move too quickly -- especially since many of the trails that might soon be reopened would have to be closed in September when rehabilitation work is to begin.

"I don't think we want to move forward until we have a complete plan in place," Shull said.

A formal proposal is expected to come before the City Council in the next few weeks.

Erosion control tops the list of short-term priorities -- workers must shore up weakened hillsides to prevent mudslides during the rainy season.

Shull's department is preparing to open bids in August for companies to perform hydro-mulching on selected Griffith Park hillsides. The process involves spraying a mixture of wood pulp and polymers from tanker trucks or helicopters. The liquid hardens into a shell "like a pie crust," Shull said.

"It's a proven slope-protection measure," he said. "It should take us through the rainy season and plant life can still grow through it."

Other key elements of the plan include installing so-called K-rails, concrete barriers that will divert water and mud; and adding "debris fences," which will allow water to pass but stop solid objects.

Funding for the coming implementation phase would come from $2 million the city allocated shortly after the fires. Shull said those funds should cover the immediate plans. But funding for the later stages -- estimated to cost up to $50 million and continue through 2010 -- has yet to be formalized.

Several city officials stressed in interviews that they were only planning hydro-mulching, not hydro-seeding -- a similar process that contains plant seeds in the spray mixture. If officials considered reseeding, it could bring protests from neighborhood activists and park enthusiasts who favor allowing the park's plant life to recover at its own pace.

The city's recovery plans are being closely monitored by a coalition of community activists.

A volunteer team known as the Griffith Park Master Plan Working Group is finalizing a proposed strategy for the park's long-term future. The plan, which group members said would be presented in the fall, is expected to promote a purist vision of Griffith Park as an unspoiled "Urban Wilderness Area" with minimal development and a ban on the planting of nonnative plant life.

The group's desires probably will conflict with competing visions for the park. After the fire, City Councilman Ed Reyes said officials should consider making the park more accessible, suggesting a bike trail leading directly into the park.

In 2005, a city plan that was quickly shelved in the face of community opposition proposed adding baseball fields and parking garages at the edges of the park along with two air tram lines -- one to the Griffith Observatory; the other to Toyon Vista.

One potentially controversial aspect of the working group's proposal: a ban on any sort of independent planting or gardening outside of tightly defined areas. A grandfather clause in the group's proposal calls for three iconic sites -- Amir's Garden, Dante's View and Captain's Roost -- to be permitted planting areas.

"These areas are not consistent with the park's Urban Wilderness Identity, but are tolerated because of the folk nature of each area," the proposal states. "Any park management must ensure that no further nonnative gardens of this type are developed in the park."

But the patchwork aspect of Griffith Park is, for many, a key element of its personality. Current fixtures such as Dante's View began as unauthorized gardens where residents planted and maintained their own trees or plants -- including species alien to Southern California.

Working group member Gerry Hans, who helped write the clause on nonnative gardens, said he believed the introduction of alien plants could be harmful to Griffith Park.

LaBonge, meanwhile, remains a proponent of the air tram from the Greek Theatre to the Griffith Observatory, one of several stances that already have brought him into conflict with the working group. The councilman concedes ongoing tensions with certain group members but declares himself "in sync with 90% to 95%" of the working group's positions.

He emphasized that any plan for Griffith Park should take into account the needs of all city residents because it accounts for more than a quarter of the city's parkland.

"Some of the activists may not have a full appreciation of the diversity of the population of Los Angeles," and the different ways they use and appreciate the park," LaBonge said.

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