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Here's Why That Music Festival at Sepulveda Basin is a Bad Idea

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White pelicans keep company with a cormorant at the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Refuge. | Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

If there's one thing we know about Angelfest, the three-day music festival proposed for the Sepulveda Basin in October, it's that we don't know much about what its backers actually plan. An early draft description of the event, though, has upset a whole lot of fans of the San Fernando Valley's beleaguered wildlife. And to veteran conservationists the proposal carries with it a distinct feeling of déjà vu. We've seen this before: someone gets a bright idea and nature pays the price.

That draft proposal, said to have been modified in the environmental review process, involves building five temporary stages in Woodley Park between Woodley Avenue and the 405, upon which bands playing popular music from the last 70 years would attract as many as 60,000 ticketholders from October 7 through October 9.

The problem? That would put the music festival hard up against the 225-acre Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve, in a month in which naturalists expect migrating birds to be counting on the Reserve's willows and sycamores for a much-needed bit of rest. And that's hard to do with five bands playing to tens of thousands of celebrating fans, under bright lights with occasional pyrotechnics.

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It's hard to overstate the Sepulveda Basin's importance to wildlife. A restored fragment of what was once a chain of wetlands and flood plains along the course of the Los Angeles River, the Wildlife Reserve offers a bit of habitat for the more than 200 species of birds that have been sighted there, including the Federally Endangered least Bell's vireo. White pelicans, North America's second-largest native bird, use the Reserve in Woodley Park as a migration pit stop in September and October.

Seasonal migration is an incredibly perilous undertaking for most birds. The amount of energy put into flying for hundreds or thousands of miles is just part of the issue. While aloft, birds must contend with a wide range of stresses from dehydration and hunger to extremes in temperature. Without enough so-called stopover habitat to provide not only fod and water but just a place to sleep for a few days, migration can often prove fatal for birds on the edge.

And that rest and recuperation is likely next to impossible if bright lights disrupt your sleep, and you must spend energy instead of conserving it contending with the unexpected sight, noise, and distracting movement of tens of thousands of revelers.

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Not a great place for a nap: Coachella in 2014 | Photo: Thomas Hawk, some rights reserved

Even absent music festivals, birds at the Reserve have it tough enough. In order to protect the wildlife that uses the Reserve, the Los Angeles City Recreation and Parks Department has crafted a list of rules for visitors that include staying on designated paths, disposing of trash in designated containers and refraining from feeding the animals — all of which would seem essentially unenforceable if 60,000 festival goers descend on the park.

For its part, Recreation and Parks, which favors the festival idea, says that the Department's share of the proceeds from the event — a $250,000 user fee paid by promoter Make Good, plus a percentage of ticket sales — will bring a much-needed infusion of cash into the department that's not vulnerable to political whims. Most of the cash would be spent in the Sepulveda Basin, but the benefit to wildlife in the Reserve is arguable. Much of the spending is projected to cover hardscape, concrete and lighting and other such infrastructure. 

According to Rec and Parks' Valley Superintendent Charles Singer, the initial proposal that drew so much ire from conservationists — including a petition against the festival launched by the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society, which calls the festival an "existential threat" to the Reserve's wildlife — has been modified significantly. How so? It's hard to tell at the moment. There's a federal draft Environmental Assessment in the works, as a result of the festival's being held on land Rec and Parks manages for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which essentially built the basin as a flood control project. That draft Environmental Assessment will gauge the degree of damage the (presumably modified) festival will do to the Reserve and other environmental resources. The document is due out in mid-April, after some delay. Once it's made public, the public will be able to see just what changes the proponents have made in the festival proposal. Fewer stages? Orienting the activities away from the reserve? We'll only know when the document's published.

Singer told me this week that he expects Angelfest's Environmental Assessment will find the festival poses no real threat to either the wildlife in the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve or to any other part of the environment. Under federal law, if a project's Environmental Assessment results in what's called a Finding of No Significant Impact (or FONSI, an admittedly odd acronym in the context of a festival featuring music from the 1950s), then project proponents don't have to put together a full-fledged Environmental Impact Statement. Singer says that extrapolating from the hundreds of other events Rec and Parks has overseen in its history, a FONSI in Angelfest's Environmental Assessment is a near-certainty.

Part of the reason proponents are confident in that FONSI is that the Environmental Assessment only covers the 2016 Angelfest. But promoters say that if 2016's festival is successful, they plan to repeat the event in subsequent years. 

And that's a problem. The bird population at Sepulveda Basin might well be able to recover from the disturbance of one festival, the way they might from a week or two of really bad weather hitting a crucial bit of stopover habitat. Thus an assessment of one festival, with three days of music and a couple weeks of setup and teardown on either side of it, might well find the impact on local birds to be minor and temporary.

But repeat that same "storm" each October for two years, or three, or even more? The best-case scenario is that birds will stop using the basin and head somewhere else in October. Not that there is much of anywhere else anymore. The worst case is that Speulveda Basin's wild birds will suffer and dwindle, as we essentially make their habitat unusable.

In other words, assessing just one year of a recurring festival at a time means you miss the cumulative impact of the annual event. And there's little doubt this fact has already occurred to conservationist lawyers. In theory, an Environmental Assessment is supposed to look at the entirety of a project to avoid missing such cumulative impacts. Whether an Environmental Assessment looks at just one building in a complex or one year in an annual festival, assessing a portion of a project at a time — a practice called "piecemealing" in environmental law jargon — is against the law.

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Open water habitat at the Sepulveda Basin | Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

 

A larger question arises: what duty to the environment do such festivals — and large artistic endeavors in general — owe to the planet? An increasing number of critics cast a withering, critical eye on remote festivals such as Burning Man for their greenhouse gas footprint. (I've long criticized that particular event for other environmental ills as well.) Artists like Michael Heizer, who attempt massive manipulations of nature in the name of art, have come in for criticism — some of it here at KCET. Christo's long-proposed project Over the River, in which reflective banners would be hung above the Arkansas River in Colorado's Bighorn Sheep Canyon, has provoked bitter opposition from environmentalists, and an Environmental Assessment that emphatically did not conclude with the acronym FONSI. 

It might seem odd to lump Christo and Heizer in with, say, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but popular arts are very much still arts. We turn to the arts for solace and distraction, to make life seem more worth living and to lighten the burden of survival in the world. 

One would think artists would recoil at the notion that their work would make it harder for other beings to survive. But if musicians agree to play at Angelfest, that's what their work is likely to do.

Food for thought.

Once the draft Environmental Assessment is available, members of the public will have two weeks to comment on the document. We'll be watching the process.