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Tension over wetlands

A developer may be buying a parcel that two agencies want preserved.

July 29, 2007|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

If Tim Anderson had his way, he would be exploring this seemingly tranquil marsh to photograph the endangered Belding's savannah sparrow nesting in pickle weed.

But life isn't tranquil these days at the Los Cerritos Wetlands.

First, the gray-bearded naturalist from Westminster videotaped a tractor rolling over marsh plants. Then he spotted a bulldozer moving through a swampy area near a pool favored by green-winged and cinnamon teals.

Today, two pools have vanished and the reeds are turning brown, said Anderson, 54, who heads a local wetlands land trust. He shipped off his images to the California Coastal Commission, where the staff concluded that a pipe project violated the state Coastal Act and ordered an immediate stop to it. It's unclear whether drought or man-made disturbance caused the pools to dry up.

As officials check for other potential violations, community tensions are rising over the future of Los Cerritos, a patchwork of tidal inlets, dried earth and oil pumps that straddles the Los Angeles County-Orange County line near Alamitos Bay.

A century ago, the Los Cerritos marshes stretched over 2,400 acres at the mouth of the San Gabriel River. Today, state officials call the remaining 400 acres in southeast Long Beach and Seal Beach "a degraded wetlands," the largest privately owned coastal marsh in Southern California, which has lost 95% of its coastal marshes to development.

Los Cerritos is at a turning point. State conservation officials want to buy the entire wetland and restore it, but the single largest owner, Bixby Ranch Co., has not agreed to sell to the state and may be negotiating with a private suitor, state and Long Beach city officials said.

The marsh is the last crucial link in a decades-long struggle to purchase and restore vanishing coastal wetlands along a migratory bird route called the Pacific Flyway from Ventura County to the Mexican border. The effort along the entire coast has cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but experts say the restored marshes will aid birds and other wildlife, cleanse water and prevent flooding.

Los Cerritos has received unprecedented attention this year, in part because of two projects proposed on dry land on both sides of the wetlands: a 16.5-acre Home Depot Design Center retail complex to the east and a 425-unit Lennar Homes luxury condominium and retail complex to the southwest.

Several Long Beach officials -- Mayor Bob Foster, Councilman Gary DeLong and City Planning Director Suzanne Frick -- said a developer is trying to buy nearly half the wetlands. Although building on wetlands is strictly regulated, such a sale could delay or block the state's purchase or trigger a prolonged fight.

"It will be like Bolsa Chica or Ballona or any of the other incredible land-use battles for which Southern California is famous," said Sam Schuchat, executive officer of the Coastal Conservancy, one of two state agencies working together to try to buy Los Cerritos.

The private developer seeking the land, he said, "is in for the legal and political battle of their life."

Some who live nearby worry that more growth would harm wildlife, exacerbate traffic and destroy the sense of open space that parts of the marshes convey.

Even now, much of Los Cerritos looks like some kind of dirt patch specked with puddles. Flanked by four supermarkets, two cinema multiplexes, two motels and a lineup of power plants, it's a place where people and nature intermingle in curious ways.

Birdwatchers use the stores as signposts, relating how they spotted blue-winged teals just east of the In-N-Out Burger. Or they snap photos of egrets across from Barnes & Noble. A few weeks ago, traffic stopped on Pacific Coast Highway in a California version of the Boston-based children's book "Make Way for Ducklings."

"I always take my binoculars to Trader Joe's, because I can go shopping and birding at the same time," said resident Harriet Bennish, who spotted a pair of American avocets last month in a pond that dried up weeks later.

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Rich in oil

Oil is the reason these marshes have survived at all.

Long before voters passed the State Coastal Act in 1976 to protect such lands, Los Cerritos was an active oilfield, studded with bobbing oil pumps and threaded with unpaved roads.

More than 180 acres belongs to Bixby Ranch Co. of Seal Beach, with ties to the Bixby family that once owned most of Long Beach, Seal Beach, Los Alamitos and other cities nearby.

Los Cerritos is hardly a household name in Southern California, where more high-profile wetlands historically have grabbed the headlines: Ballona south of Marina del Rey, Bolsa Chica and, in San Diego County, Batiquitos Lagoon in Carlsbad.

But the name is well known among birders and wetlands experts, because migratory birds cruising between Alaska and Central and South America use this and other coastal marshes for foraging and shelter, much as Angelenos may stop at Barstow on the way to Las Vegas.

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