Botanist Ellen Zunino of Monrovia visits the Sepulveda Basin vegetation… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
Two state senators on Thursday called on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to explain its decision to plow under 43 acres of lush wildlife habitat at the Sepulveda Basin without prior notice or coordination with community leaders and environmentalists.
Sens. Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) and Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) asked for details about what led to the agency's declaration in August that its "vegetation management plan" for the area did not require an environmental impact report because it would not significantly disturb wildlife and habitat.
On Dec. 10, Army Corps bulldozers, mowers and mulching machines stripped nearly all the greenery from the swath of Los Angeles River flood plain just west of Interstate 405 and north of Burbank Boulevard, wiping out habitat for mammals, reptiles and hundreds of species of birds.
"When a clunky federal bureaucracy doesn't collaborate with state and local officials and community leaders, you create a real mess, which is what we have right now at the Sepulveda Basin," De Leon said in an interview.
He noted that although the corps is not subject to state environmental laws, protections from the federal National Environmental Policy Act may apply.
"If the Army Corps doesn't cooperate, the next step is to engage members of Congress to exercise their powers, or have the state attorney general notify the U.S. district attorney's office," De Leon said.
Pavley, whose district includes the Sepulveda Basin, said she wants to know the extent of damage caused to trails, markers and signs funded with "state and local park monies" and installed and maintained "by thousands of hours of volunteer work."
Army Corps of Engineers District Cmdr. Col. Mark Toy was unavailable for comment. But corps spokesman Jay Field said the agency will cooperate fully with the senators.
The area existed as a wildlife preserve adjacent to the Sepulveda Dam for more than three decades. In 2010, it was reclassified as a corps "vegetation management area" with a new five-year mission of replacing trees and shrubs with native grasses as part of an effort to improve access for corps staffers, increase public safety and discourage crime, lewd activity, drug abuse and homeless camps.
Environmental groups led by the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society interpreted the plan to suggest the agency would avoid removal of native willow and cotton groves, elderberries, coyote brush and mule fat. Much of that vegetation was planted decades ago under a corps program to create the wildlife preserve.
Kris Ohlenkamp, conservation chairman of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society, said the corps' management plan was vague. "But this much is clear: What the corps actually did to that land is not represented anywhere in the plan."
Army Corps Deputy District Cmdr. Alexander Deraney has said his agency's actions were "more or less in line with the plan." He said the corps wanted to preserve the native vegetation but discovered that "the native brush was so grown into non-native brush that it would be impossible to separate them."
The corps has ceased operations on the property pending consultations and meetings with environmental and community groups.