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Razed Expectations: Why It Matters that the Army Corps Bulldozed the Sepulveda Sanctuary

A Dec. 22 video taken of the razed south reserve by Mathew Tekulsky with voiceover by Kris Ohlenkamp, both board members of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society.

In December, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did what it does best -- it disappointed and deeply so.

With little public notice, it gutted more than 40 acres of thick vegetation along Haskell Creek as it flows through the Sepulveda Basin. Did the Corps believe that no one would care? Or that even if people came upon its hack job that the traumatized terrain would elicit no comment? Or did the agency simply decide to act as it so often has in the past with little regard to the environmental consequences, and the public be damned?

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One of those convinced that the Corps remains blinded by the dazzling allure of its technical expertise is Kris Ohlenkamp, former president of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society. He was among a group who stumbled upon the recently bulldozed landscape during the society's annual Christmas Bird Count, and decried the federal agency's retrogressive actions: "This is the old Corps of the '50s and '60s that destroyed the Everglades," he told KPCC; "they've promised to get away from that."

This particular vow went unfulfilled. The Corps' unilateral decision to chop down mature Cottonwoods and Willows, bury Pothole Pond and its wetland habitat, and rip out understory plants and grasses within the basin undercuts its professed change in behavior: "They've said it's a mandate of the Corps to be good stewards of the environment and assure a diversity of habitats," Ohlenkamp asserted, but after wandering through the blunt-cut vegetation he remained unconvinced.

The agency's initially lame response to the resulting outcry did not help matters: "somehow, we did not clearly communicate" with local environmental and neighborhood groups, Army Corps Deputy District Commander Alexander Deraney admitted to the Los Angeles Times. He swore the Corps would "make the process more transparent in the future."

Somehow? In the future? None of these words give confidence that the agency has in fact learned from its less-than-pristine history or that its much-heralded (and greener) future will ever arrive.

Aerial view of Sepulveda Dam. | Photo: Courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Aerial view of Sepulveda Dam. | Photo: Courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

In the Corps defense, the land in question has been heavily manipulated since the early 1940s. Part of the vast flood-control system that has restructured the entire length of the Los Angeles River watershed, it lies to the west of nearby Sepulveda Dam, which was constructed in 1941. The earth-filled embankment and its iconic gated spillway are the pivot around much of Los Angeles revolves: the dam has protected downstream neighborhoods (and allowed others to be built); the postwar concretization of the upstream riverbed allowed the development of an autocentric San Fernando Valley; and to serve this booming suburban population, a sprawling recreation area has evolved within the basin itself. Seen from the sky, the Sepulveda Dam gives dramatic contour to the regional flow of people and water. Nothing about it and its environs seems natural, unmanaged.

Yet that is precisely why folks are so upset by the Corps' marauding through acreage that contained the ecological building blocks of much-needed riparian habitat. Since the 1980s, and with express permission and financial support from the relevant public agencies, volunteers have been planting elderberry, willows, and coyote brush, and other material as part of a restoration initiative that has (or had) taken on a life of its own. Tall trees with a thick understory, water flowing and still, and a range of open and densely vegetated space -- innumerable species could call this zone home.

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Wildlife north of Burbank Blvd. in the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Area. | Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District/Flickr

They did, too, especially birds. Indeed, determining their presence is precisely why the San Fernando Audubon Society, like its peer groups around the world, mounts the annual Christmas Bird Count. The Audubon Society established the first such in 1900 when it was itself a fledgling organization. Frank Chapman, one of its founding ornithologists, promoted the idea as a beneficial counter to the Yuletide tradition of indiscriminate and competitive gunning down of birds.

Ever since, the concept has taken flight, as families and friends tabulate resident and migratory avian populations, building up what Chapman called "a census of Christmas bird-life." For more than a century, these citizen scientists have compiled a wealth of data that has deepened our ecological understanding of the interaction between birds and the landscapes that sustain them.

It's just such diligent activism that has helped us know definitively that Sepulveda Basin supports robust, year-round populations of a range of birds -- Great and Snowy Egrets, Night-crowned and Green Herons, Turkey Vultures, and Ring-billed Gulls, Greater White-fronted Goose, as well as all manner of doves and pigeons, warblers, finches, and wrens, ducks and hawks. Sharp-eyed birders have enumerated year after year that the site is as well a critical way station for those species flying in for a portion of the winter, among them the Common Moorhen, Virginia Rail, Nuttall's Woodpecker, and Lesser Yellowlegs; Eagles golden and bald, Peregrine Falcons, and Chipping Sparrows. Those creekside acres, brutalized by what the local Audubon Society likened to "a mechanized blitzkrieg assault," were very much alive.

Their very vibrancy is why the Corps' declaration that it did not need to file an environmental impact statement because there was nothing on the ground to impact is so galling. It conceded that some birds flew overhead now and again, and that there was the odd squirrel nosing about, but otherwise the area was devoid of significance, no species or habitat worth identifying or protecting.

The agency's casual and convenient dismissal is born in part of its monomaniacal focus on its perceived mission -- the Sepulveda Basin is designed as flood-control infrastructure and nothing should interfere with its proper functioning. It is also a consequence of the George W. Bush administration's willingness to cut federal land managers a lot of slack in terms of how they interpreted environmental regulations. That White House did so in hopes of foiling the people's ability to challenge agencies' actions in court, rights hitherto protected under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 and repeatedly affirmed in one lawsuit after another. Yet those who want to clearcut forests, mow down grasslands, drill and frack without restraint, and build dams and levees have little interest in public oversight, and the Bush administration gave them their lead; the current president has not yet reined them in. What happened to this relatively small plot of land in Southern California is happening across the country.

Like elsewhere, people here are infuriated. Scathing critiques online, damning newspaper stories, and exposes in the electronic media have forced the Corps to call a temporary halt to its "Vegetation Management Project." It has agreed to meet with some of the aggrieved parties, notably the whistle-blowing San Fernando Audubon Society, and to clue them in on its long-term plans.

It might want to include State Senators Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) and Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), and L.A. Councilwoman Jan C. Perry in its debriefing, for the local politicians have gone public with their demand for clarification. "When a clunky federal bureaucracy doesn't collaborate with state and local officials and community leaders, "de Leon asserted in the LA Times, "you create a real mess, which is what we have right now in the Sepulveda Basin."

Whether in the end the Corps will clean up its mess is doubtful -- after all, it has already and thoroughly devastated the formerly healthy terrain. Moreover, once challenged, the federal agency has a tendency to dig in, rally around its can-do motto (Eassayons: Let Us Try), and plow straight ahead. In this instance that would mean clearing off what it has not already flattened, spraying herbicides for the next five years to kill off unwanted plants, and replacing the once-varied vegetation with a single crop of saw grass.

It is impossible to imagine that the Corps' construction of this sterile monoculture, so consistent with its concrete fixation, will ever come close to matching the rich biota that citizen-led restoration efforts have nurtured on and attracted to the site. Like a wolf peeing on its territorial boundaries, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with bulldozer and chainsaw, has marked its turf, and the result has been a scandalous diminishing of nature and democracy.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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