How could this have happened? What do they really want? How can we prevent this from ever happening again? These three questions were at the center of community discussions at last night's Encino Neighborhood Council (ENC) Parks Committee meeting, held at the Balboa Sports Complex in Encino.
Despite the weeks that have passed since the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society (SFV Audubon) first discovered the decimated wildlife area on the south side of Burbank Boulevard, there have been no satisfactory answers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
So far, the Army Corps has said it proceeded with this Vegetative Management project to temper lewd conduct, drug dealing, homelessness and illicit activities rampant in the area. "There are huge amount of large debris because of the homeless population. Large trees can also become problems when maintaining the flood gates," said David Van Dorpe, Deputy District Engineer for Project Management, United States Army Corps of Engineers, Los Angeles District during a meeting of the Los Angeles River Cooperation Committee, a joint working group of major entities overseeing the Los Angeles River area, earlier the same day. Dorpe also clarified that bulldozers were not used during the clearing of the 43-acre area.
Environmentalists in attendance during the River Cooperation meeting received the news with disbelief. Debra George, Encino Neighborhood Council Parks Committee chair, stated that she had looked at the LAPD crime maps of the area online and no such rampant crimes were indicated. As for bulldozers? Kris Ohlenkamp, Conservation Chair of SFV Audubon, points to pictures of two-and-a-half feet wide tire treads, uprooted trees, and leveled land, and begs to differ.
As a result of the clearing, the Army Corps has disturbed a natural habitat that has thrived around the area for almost 30 years, since hundreds of volunteers planted willows, coyote brush and elderberry trees in the area. "It will take 10 to 15 years at least to get back to a reasonably natural eco-system again," says Ohlenkamp.
Understandably, the community feels cheated. Cheated of their voice and of their money. Glenn Bailey of the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Area Steering Committee (SBWASC) testified during the River Cooperation meeting that the Army Corps has had a standing invitation to attend the SBWASC's regular meetings, but has sent no representative in the last two years. "If they wanted to let us know, they could have easily informed us. They had a seat at the table. They could have attended, or at least sent an email."
Not only has the Army Corps bypassed the public, Bailey also notes it has also taken the public money that goes into improvement in the area for granted. During the clearing, decomposed granite pathways and stone structures were destroyed as well. ENC estimates that damage to the pathways alone conservatively costs about $100,000 in today's dollars.
Vanessa Santos, an Encino resident, believes that the Army Corps should be held accountable for the damage. "It's not just actual monetary value they took away from us, it's the thirty years of time that the habitat took to grow."
In response to the question of what can the average resident do, Ohlenkamp pragmatically says, the best thing to do is to write a letter addressed to your district's representatives.
Environmentalists and residents are not the only ones asking for the reason behind the Corps' actions. In separate letters, State Senators Kevin de Leon and Fran Pavley have asked for explanations. Ninth district councilwoman Jan Perry has introduced a motion asking the City Attorney, City Planning, the Army Corps, and environmental groups to take stock of the loss, as well as a clarification of how the city was notified of Army Corps' actions.
The ENC Parks Committee eventually finalized four motions for ENC approval: for the Army Corps to provide at least 60 days notice to related community groups prior to any action; for ENC to support Councilwoman Perry's motion and refer it to the Ad Hoc River Committee; for Army Corps to make a publicly state the South Wildlife Reserve is an "open public space and a wildlife reserve that will not be closed to the public" (According to Ohlenkamp, visitors have been turned away and managers have cited the private property, no trespassing signs have been posted in place of Wildlife signs previously in place.); and the Army Corps bear all costs to the area, which were originally paid for by local and federal monies.
Questions abound, but no satisfactory answers were to be found. "We have to get 15 permits whenever we do our Los Angeles River cleanup. You guys operate with impunity!" Lewis MacAdams, Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) co-founder, addressed Dorpe during the River Cooperation meeting. "The last few years, we thought we were working with a different Army Corps. But now, we don't know which one we're dealing with. Is it the new Army Corps or the old Army Corps?" MacAdams continued, referring to the Army Corps in cooperation on L.A. River events, not least of which is the wildly successful Paddle the L.A. River program.
It may be "new" Army Corps environmentalists and naturalists are dealing with, but recent backslide in public trust means the Army Corps will have much, much more to prove in the years to come.
SFV Audubon Conservation Chair Kris Ohlenkamp will be leading a tour of the affected South Wildlife Preserve area this Sunday, January 13 at 9 am. Details can be found here.