A Tern for the Better

Professor Howard Towner, LMU & Friends of Ballona Wetlands

A portion of Ballona, the only remaining large coastal wetland in Los Angeles County. Photo: Professor Howard Towner, LMU & Friends of Ballona Wetlands.

One of the region’s unsung environmental heroes, Ruth Lansford, received deserved kudos Saturday night, July 19th, at the 30th Anniversary Dinner for the Friends of Ballona Wetlands. A few hundred supporters, including Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Assemblyman Mike Feuer and “California Gold’s” Huell Howser, came out to the marsh to celebrate Ruth’s incredible conservation efforts.

I’ve always looked at Ruth as the Dorothy Green (Heal the Bay’s founder, heart and soul) of the Ballona Wetlands.  She isn’t trained as a wetland ecologist or a political activist, but she still has been effective because of her passion, perseverance and patience. She has truly led the fight to save L.A. County’s last major coastal wetland.

Over the years, Ruth and the Friends unfairly took a lot of heat because they eventually settled their claims against the development of Playa Vista. The compromise not only precluded them from opposing the massive development, but actually put them in the awkward position of supporting the components of the development tied to wetland protection.  This is considered taboo in the environmental movement and was a mistake recently avoided in the Tejon Ranch deal made by NRDC, Audubon California, Planning Conservation LeagueSierra Club and the Endangered Habitats League.  Although the wetlands compromise can be viewed as a misstep, there is no doubt in my mind that there would be eight-story buildings and a golf course on Ballona without Ruth’s heroic efforts as the leader of the Friends.

The good news is that numerous other groups sprung up to effectively fight for Ballona and about 600 acres are now protected. Former Gov. Gray Davis, Mary Nichols and Ruth Galanter (who first ran for city office over two decades ago on the platform of stopping the Hughes Summa Corp.’s plans to destroy the wetlands) helped get the $150 million to buy a large wetland parcel. Then State Controller Kathleen Connell helped pull off protection of another parcel.

California Least Tern

California Least Tern

Saturday night was an emotional walk down memory lane, with many of the region’s most successful conservationists there to honor and thank Ruth for her work. Her son’s film documenting highlights of the last 30 years was very moving. I was particularly touched by Ruth’s gushing enthusiasm about the endangered California Least Tern‘s use of the freshwater marsh as foraging habitat. The avian symbol of the Friends had returned to Ballona in big numbers. After 30 years of tireless activism, the woman most responsible was as happy as a kid on Christmas morning.

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2 Responses

  1. Mark — a great essay, and many thanks. In response to Marcia, to correct a few misunderstandings: the Freshwater Marsh IS working out as planned. The least tern IS foraging at the Freshwater Marsh — on mosquito fish stocked by the Los Angeles County West Vector and Vector-Borne Disease Control District. During their breeding season, the terns can be seen in large numbers, diving for the fish, by anyone walking along the public trail of the Freshwater Marsh. While this fish is not native, it is part of a mosquito abatement program that was approved by all permitting agencies as part of plans for the Freshwater Marsh. True — not all things are working like everyone thought — but in a positive way. While plans for the Freshwater Marsh were moving forward, no one foresaw that the endangered least tern would return to Ballona in such large numbers, far above those seen foraging along the former Centinela Ditch, because of the presence of a non-native fish. Obviously, mosquito abatement alternatives that employ native fish must be found, but meanwhile, a species on the brink of extinction has a reliable food source. Ruth and the rest of us who are dedicated to science-based restoration see the least tern as a positive sign of what can be accomplished at the Ballona Wetlands.
    Edith Read
    Manager, Ballona Freshwater Marsh
    Board Member, Friends of Ballona Wetlands

  2. Nothing’s been “avoided” in the Tejon Ranch deal, Mark. Just so you know – they’ve agreed to allow development in “critical habitat” for the endangered Condor. That’s why the Center for Biological Diversity pulled out of negotiations. And it’s not just the Condor at risk from this development, but numerous other rare and imperiled species.

    Also, the Least Tern flying over the area of the current freshwater marsh is nothing new; it flew over this area for years when the Centinela Creek historical channel flowed there. It is likely not foraging, however, as the food for Least Tern is small fish, like those in the Ballona Creek estuary, or just offshore. And Playa Vista said for years that NO FISH will be in the freshwater marsh. Unless someone’s stalking it with fish, the water is runoff from the development, and no saltwater from the Ballona Creek estuary is supposed to go upstream back into the marsh. Maybe things are not working like everyone thought?

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