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Environmental groups concerned about Forest Lawn's plan to clear trees

The Hollywood Hills cemetery near Griffith Park is running out of burial spots, managers say. Environmentalists worry that a proposal to replace 835 oak, sycamore and walnut trees with 199,000 new interment spaces could cut into wildlife habitat.

June 17, 2011|By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times
  • Forest Lawn Memorial-Parks & Mortuaries wants to develop 120 acres of its grounds because its existing expanse of carefully manicured lawns has nearly run out of room for interments.
Forest Lawn Memorial-Parks & Mortuaries wants to develop 120 acres… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

A proposal to replace 835 oak, sycamore and walnut trees with 199,000 new interment spaces at a prominent Hollywood Hills cemetery near Griffith Park is at the heart of a controversy over the future of what little remains of the Los Angeles area's undeveloped wildlife habitat.

Forest Lawn Memorial-Parks & Mortuaries wants to develop 120 acres of its grounds because its existing expanse of carefully manicured lawns has nearly run out of room for interments in grassy havens with names like "Ascending Dawn" and "Vale of Hope."

On Wednesday, as families in mourning gathered around grave sites overlooking the San Fernando Valley, Forest Lawn President and Chief Executive Darin B. Drabing said the proposal aims to meet a pressing need.

"There have been no new regional cemeteries built in 50 years, yet most people want to bury their loved ones close to home," he said. "Some critics should put their emotions in neutral and realize that we are serving an ancient human impulse to say, 'Remember me,' as well as traditional, cultural and religious needs to recall and honor loved ones who passed away."

The 63-year-old cemetery serves about 3,000 families annually.

The new facility would cost tens of millions of dollars and include 108,000 grave sites for casket burials, and 91,500 spaces for above-ground interments.

Drabing also pointed out that the new development would only affect about 2% of the greater Griffith Park natural habitat area. In addition, Forest Lawn has contributed 200 acres of wildlands to Griffith Park over the last 20 years.

The proposal, however, has ruffled the feathers of groups including the Friends of Griffith Park, the Greater Griffith Park Neighborhood Council, the Sierra Club, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the California Department of Fish and Game. The groups are concerned that it could have a disastrous impact on the area's woodlands, wildlife corridors and creatures ranging from legless lizards to western mastiff bats.

The proposal calls for the removal of 632 coast live oaks, 59 sycamores and 144 Southern California black walnut trees across 18 acres of land through 2050, according to the draft environmental impact report released earlier this year. It would also destroy rare plants: the oscillated Humboldt Lily, Catalina mariposa lily and Coulter's matilija poppy.

The Department of Fish and Game, in its response to the draft EIR, argued that Forest Lawn's plan to replace mature woodlands with acorns and 1-gallon seedlings planted on graded slopes within the project site, or at undisclosed locations elsewhere, is vague and "not truly mitigating for the loss of a community."

In an interview, Forest Lawn officials said they plan to replace each felled tree with up to 15 new trees cultivated from local seeds. The new trees would be planted across the cemetery grounds, and in selected locations in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Other critics said the EIR does not adequately address the cumulative effects of nearby proposed and ongoing development projects in terms of traffic and noise, light and pollution. For example, a proposed NBCUniversal development proposal calls for roughly 2 million square feet of new commercial uses, including a 500-room hotel and 2,937 multifamily residential units.

Of particular concern are potentially adverse effects to Sennett Creek, a spring-fed perennial stream that courses from Griffith Park, winds through the cemetery and empties into the Los Angeles River. The portion flowing through Forest Lawn has undergone significant restoration over the last 15 years and provides habitat for toads, tree frogs and garter snakes, and lush cover for deer, foxes and bobcats.

The greater Griffith Park natural area is home to about 10 to 15 bobcats, according to urban carnivore expert Laurel Klein, who is collaborating with the National Park Service in a study of bobcats in the Santa Monica Mountains Recreational Area.

"I'm alarmed that Forest Lawn has plans to expand in the Hollywood Hills," Klein said. "Griffith Park is very small and can't support the bobcats it has now. Reducing the size of the area bobcats can use would have huge detrimental effects on their population."

If all goes according to plan, the proposal will be approved by the Los Angeles City Council later this year. In the meantime, Forest Lawn is considering mitigation measures including a proposal to contribute $2 million to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy for acquisition of undeveloped land along Griffith Park's southern boundaries.

It is also weighing pleas from environmental groups and state wildlife authorities that it proceed with an environmentally sensitive development plan noted in the EIR as "Alternative 4," which calls for development of 103 acres and removal of only 339 trees.

In a letter to the city Planning Commission, Antonio Gonzalez, chairman of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, argued, "Just a slight reduction in the project scale would yield tremendous riparian benefits."

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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