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Discord takes root as garden recovers from fire

July 05, 2009|Catherine Saillant

SANTA BARBARA — Evidence of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden's rebound from a devastating wildfire less than two months ago is all around.

Frilly green fronds sprout from the scorched trunks of two tall palms near the garden's entrance. Its iconic meadow bursts with purple verbena, bright orange poppies and papery-white Matilija poppies. Paths that were covered in inches of soot a month ago are clean and ready for visitors.

There's even a newly installed wooden labyrinth, topped with an emerald-green sod roof, added to emphasize the garden's rebirth from the Jesusita fire, which roared down Mission Canyon on May 6.

But dig a little deeper and all is not well at the much-loved California native plant garden, a Santa Barbara institution for eight decades.

For months, some of the most passionate volunteers and boosters have battled the garden's management. About 60 volunteers are staging a strike, denying their services over perceived financial improprieties.

The growing discontent became public in April, after 10 staff members were let go to cut costs. Garden volunteers say it was the last straw.

"There are morale problems at the garden," said Christine Riesenfeld, one of the striking volunteers. "There is a concern that the focus isn't on the mission of the garden for the community anymore."

Owen Dell, a landscape architect who taught occasional classes at the garden, resigned in solidarity with the volunteers. The opponents' goal, he said, is to return the garden to "what it once was: a natural place that isn't being operated as a profit center or theme park."

Garden leaders say the rebellion reflects growing pains as the state's largest repository of native plant species seeks to chart a course for the future. The Botanic Garden was founded in 1926 by people who saw it as a place for scientific research, conservation and education about the state's vast plant diversity.

Much of the discontent centers on a long-debated plan that would add buildings and tear down others to make way for an expanded library, updated research facilities and better parking, garden leaders say.

"It's a difficult time for everyone," said Nancy Johnson, the garden's marketing vice president. "But we love our volunteers, and we'd welcome them back."

Critics say the nonprofit's plunging endowment is causing alarm.

In 2004, the Botanic Garden had reserves of about $21 million. Now it's less than $9 million, Dell said. Millions of dollars have been "piddled away" on planning costs for the update, on adding real estate to the garden and on projects, such as adding a public terrace, which opponents see as a waste of money, Dell said.

Then, this spring as the stock market plunged and the garden's investments slid further, Chief Executive Ed Schneider called for the layoffs. Some of the employees had been with the garden for decades.

Johnson doesn't dispute the steep loss in garden investments. She said it was unavoidable and triggered the staff reductions. Annual returns have fallen with the economic downturn and donations have also dropped, a trend felt by nonprofits nationwide, she said.

"This has been a painful thing for everyone," she said. "But our board of trustees is very frugal financially."

Johnson said one of the recent expenditures, $500,000 for six new fire hydrants, probably helped save the garden. Firefighters told the garden's leaders that they chose to make a stand because water was available, she said.

Although firefighters saved core garden features, such as its wildflower meadow and its rare collection of 160,000 plant specimens, many others went up in smoke. The entire pine collection burned to the ground, along with 9,500 plants, Johnson said. A popular redwood tree ring was destroyed, along with a bridge on the Canyon Trail.

A fire-resilient redwood grove survived, but oak woodland on the northernmost section of the garden suffered significant damage and trails leading to it are still closed. A 9,500-square-foot facility housing tools and equipment burned to the ground, as did the on-site home for the garden's chief executive.

The garden has "great insurance" and plans to restore all of the lost buildings, Johnson said. But in the week after the fire, it had just one shovel as it began the massive cleanup effort.

A fundraising effort yielded $110,000 to begin restocking equipment and vehicles, she said.

She thinks the public's quick response to a call for help indicates that it has not lost faith with what's happening at the garden.

A board member recently sat down with some volunteers to try to hash out differences, she said.

Everyone's hoping the dialogue will continue.

"We feel the love for the garden is common ground," she said. "And that's a very good place to start."

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catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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