Environmentalists were elated when the state made a blanket decision to save an all but extinct coastal plant.
But their joy evaporated when officials decided that the best way to preserve the endangered Ventura marsh milk vetch was to cover a corner of the Ballona Wetlands in Playa del Rey with an actual blanket.
Scientists at the state's Department of Fish and Game say a 200-foot-long tarp over the wetlands was necessary to kill off nonnative vegetation and create an open area to transplant the endangered, yellow-flowered milk vetch.
Horrified conservationists complain that the covering is killing frogs, squirrels, wetland mice and other animals along with the targeted weeds and ice plant. Some have threatened to rip off the covering if authorities refuse to do so.
On Thursday they appealed to the California Coastal Commission to halt the eradication project and to order the tarp's removal, while a new milk vetch rescue plan is worked out. Commissioners meeting in Oceanside took no action, however.
Vandals attempted Thursday to remove the covering, prompting Fish and Game officials to step up patrols around the Culver Boulevard site.
Officials, in the meantime, have revoked Ballona Wetlands access permits for several conservationists who have voiced opposition to the vegetation eradication effort.
The ruckus concerns a fragile, silvery-leafed plant that was once thought to be extinct -- that is, until two clumps of the plant were discovered 11 years ago near Oxnard by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. Although the milk vetch is known to have flourished in the Ballona Wetlands area as early as the 1880s, the plant had disappeared by about 1950, when the historically marshy area was drying up.
Ironically, the milk vetch preservation effort is a spinoff of a lawsuit filed five years ago by environmentalists protesting the Coastal Commission's approval of development plans for the Oxnard site.
Activists Marcia Hanscom and Roy van de Hoek, co-directors of the Ballona Institute, lost in a lower court and settled the lawsuit when the Oxnard developer agreed to help pay for the reintroduction of the plant in wetland areas at Playa del Rey and Orange County's Bolsa Chica.
Hanscom and van de Hoek said they protested to local fish and game officials when they learned of the Ballona blanket plan. Van de Hoek said he also confronted workers when they showed up last week to stake down the black plastic tarp.
"I was definitely passionate and very assertive, verbally, in saying it was a raping of the Earth and ruining of the wetlands. I said, 'I want to see what's under the tarp.' I wanted to tell the three guys they were killing animals and plants. So I did," van de Hoek said.
Van de Hoek is well-known to state and local officials. In 2006 he was charged with six counts of vandalism after he was seen cutting nonnative trees and shrubs in the 600-acre Ballona Wetlands area. Nine years earlier he had been convicted of misdemeanor vandalism for cutting down nonnative eucalyptus trees in the Carrizo Plain National Monument in Central California.
In the Carrizo Plain case he was sentenced to community service -- which entailed removing nonnative plants from state parkland near Morro Bay. For his Ballona pruning, prosecutors agreed to drop charges in exchange for van de Hoek writing a vegetation report on the marshland and agreeing to lead tours there.
In revoking authorization for both van de Hoek and Hanscom to enter the Ballona Wetlands, Fish and Game lands program supervisor Karen Miner said, "Ballona Institute's activities have been determined to be incompatible with the department's management goals and objectives."
Other critics of the black tarp have described the vegetation eradication as "brutish and destructive" in Internet postings.
But the vegetation clearance is supported by others, including the Friends of Ballona Wetlands. That group has voiced its support to the Coastal Commission.
Otella Wruck, executive director of the 30-year-old Friends group, said the use of plastic coverings is a "standard practice" for such projects. She said a scientist who works with her organization helped Fish and Game officials pick the milk vetch relocation site.
Rick Mayfield, who manages the wetlands for the Department of Fish and Game, denied that animals are being harmed by the tarp covering.
Most animals moved out of the way when the covering was being installed, he said. Others actually like the shelter from the sun that the black plastic offers, Mayfield said Thursday.
The thick plastic "deprives the plants underneath of sunlight so no photosynthesis or reproduction occurs," Mayfield said of the weeds and ice plant. The aggressively invasive ice plant would choke out the transplanted milk vetch if it was allowed to remain, he said.
The state's longtime goal for the entire wetlands area is its restoration to a normal salt-water marsh, he said.
The tarp will remain in place through September, according to state officials.
Between September and next February the site will be monitored and any ice plant seedlings will be removed by hand. After that, the milk vetch will be returned to Playa del Rey.