Angels with Dirty Faces: Cleaning Up the Ballona Wetlands

I've always felt strangely drawn to the Ballona Wetlands area; I attribute it to the refreshing abundance of open space to be found there. Apart from the Playa Vista housing development, not much has been built in the marshy land between Marina and Playa del Rey in recent years. For that we can thank Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, the grassroots organization that negotiated with developers and worked in conjunction with the state of California to retain and restore approximately 600 acres of this valuable habitat for native flora and fauna.

Before the Friends stepped in, the wetlands had a storied history, with everything from ranching to oil drilling to flood control to, most notably, the construction of the marina taking their toll on the natural environment. Decades of abuse have left behind a considerable and ongoing cleanup job, and the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands can use all the help they can get. Because I take such personal pleasure in the sights, scents and big-sky vibe of the wetlands, I was eager to get my hands dirty during one of the Friends' monthly Habitat Restoration Volunteer Days. I brought my husband and two little ones along for good measure, and -- until allergies started to set in -- we all had a pretty grand time pulling weeds on a Saturday morning.

We met up in a parking lot behind a market in Playa del Rey. After walking a few paces into the brush we found ourselves at the historical site of the Sa-Angna Gabrielino/Tongva village. We explored a model of a traditional Tongva dwelling called a kiche and a display of some cool large woven baskets before heading deeper into the marshland to get our marching orders from the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands guides. We were given the choice of removing non-native plants from the wetlands or returning to the parking lot to paint a fence -- a no-brainer, as far as I was concerned.

Our affable leader Christian gave a quick lesson on which invasive non-natives we would be targeting, namely, the lanky chartreuse-flowered euphorbia plant, yellow clover, purple radish ... and pretty much all of the grass we could get. Our group of about a dozen volunteers ranging in years from toddler to middle age dutifully set to work, discovering along the way that the seemingly Sisyphean task of pulling out meager handfuls of grass is not nearly as satisfying as yanking out towering weeds.

We learned a bunch of other cool facts as well, courtesy of Christian. Here are a few that stuck with me: plain red ladybugs are native, whereas spotted ones are from Australia (but they're still beneficial insects); purple radish plants have to get really big before they're ready to harvest, but the flowers are edible in the meantime (and taste a lot like radish); the colorful coastal stalwart ice plant is actually a non-native species from Africa; and the great egret can grow as big as 3 ½ feet tall, but only weighs about two pounds.

After a couple of hours of pulling, chatting and exploring, we left the wetlands with itchy noses, dirty faces, a sense of accomplishment, and lots of fun factoids to share at our next dinner party.

In honor of Earth Day, the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands will host two Habitat Restoration Days in April: one on the 20th and another on the 27th. Earth Day should be especially interesting, as the plan is to release back into the wild at least one rescued and recuperated native bird. My son doesn't want to miss it, so we'll be back on the 20th. If you'd like to get involved, you can find a calendar and details about future volunteer days here.

About the Author

Erin Harris is the editor of sustainable living blog SimpleFives.com and author of "Walking LA: 38 Walking Tours Exploring Stairways, Streets and Buildings You Never Knew Existed." She lives in Santa Monica with her husband and tw...
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