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Memories are wrapped up in Topanga park

February 04, 2008|AL MARTINEZ

In the overheated arena of politics, the concerns of the people are rarely an issue. They're mentioned all right, sometimes over and over again, right up there with God and the flag, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, political survival is what matters, pursued along a route of political expediency.

I'm not talking about the presidential race but about the governor's plan to close 48 California state parks and beaches in a misguided effort to help balance next year's bloated budget.

It would include Topanga State Park, the largest wilderness area in the nation within city boundaries, 13,000 acres of mountains, forests, hiking trails, an incredible array of wildlife and views that imprint on one's memory with the visual impact of a Van Gogh painting.

I'll tell you right off that I have a vested interest in this particular park. It's within walking distance of my home, and I've been wandering its trails for 35 years, long before it became a part of the state's landscape of open spaces.

There from a hilltop that looks toward the blue distance of a mountainous horizon and the ocean beyond, I have sat on a bench during troubled times and pondered problems that concerned my physical and emotional well-being and have come away from the peaceful moments with a better fix on life.

I often walked my first grandchild, my good friend Travis, up a fire trail that winds through an oak forest, his small hand in mine, as we considered an environment that often included deer feeding in a meadow or hawks circling overhead. We walked one day when a breeze was blowing the leaves of autumn into circular patterns through the damp air. I can see him still, spinning in circles with his arms flung wide, an integral part of the wind itself.

I embrace Topanga State Park, and it embraces me. And I'm not alone.

Within the confines of the community known for its activism, the temperature is rising. Petitions are making the rounds, letters and phone calls are aimed at the governor and at local legislators. In its most recent issue, the feisty biweekly Topanga Messenger has devoted two full pages to those unwilling to see their park in jeopardy.

Topanga long ago lost its image of a dopey, dreamy-eyed community of whispery environmentalists. In the 1960s, it fought back a developer's efforts to build a 72,000-home tract where the park now exists and joined in a later battle to defeat a plan to create a hotel and golf course on land subsequently acquired by the state for another park.

I've seen a town of conservationists, lawyers, housewives, artists, activists, writers, retirees and just plain hell-raisers converge on the centers of government like an avenging army to loudly protest plans that would alter the bucolic nature of their canyon.

I suspect that this could happen again, and the outrage isn't all personal -- not just because the oasis that sprawls out around them is considered a valuable part of the community, but because it is also a valuable part of the whole of Southern California. Lynne Haig, who heads the park's docent program, tells me that last year, 455,000 visitors entered the park through the main gate, including thousands of schoolchildren from throughout L.A.

The number doesn't include those who walked in from one of its other accessible areas, or the children who came as part of programs sponsored by inner-city organizations or clubs dedicated to putting young people close to nature. A long time ago I was one of them, a poor kid treated to a week at a YMCA mountain park for an experience I've never forgotten. I've been in love with tall trees and woodsy trails ever since.

It may be that the governor is playing poker with the budget proposal, hoping that by threatening to shut down 48 state parks, the Legislature will find other ways to save money.

Schwarzenegger knows that you can never truly close a park like Topanga. You can eliminate the personnel that tend and guard it, but that just leaves it open to abuse and neglect, and the increased dangers of fire. You can't build a wall around nature.

A greater peril in its closing, as Haig sees it, is that the land would become a prize once more for developers who still hunger to clog it with tract housing and whose money would tempt our legislators to put it up for sale, losing another open space for all time.

L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky is prepared to introduce a measure before the board that would support keeping the park open. Anything less, he says, would be breaking faith with the people. More than that, it would be breaking faith with the future of the planet, and we can only imagine how damaging that might ultimately be.

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