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Shaping the Landscape at Whittier Narrows Nature Center

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For generations, the Whittier Narrows Nature Center has served as a natural oasis to locals as well as animals, including rare migratory birds | Photo: Carribean Fragoza

Strange soldiering of electrical towers at attention in the December haze, tree bark and metal vying for skyline, woody, tangled shrubs edged with occasional red berries or flowers confused by fickle Southern California seasons. It's wintertime at the Whittier Narrows Natural Area, a 400-acre riparian woodland and habitat alongside the San Gabriel River, between Montebello and Puente-Chino Hills, in South El Monte. This was where the Old San Gabriel Mission was founded and where the Tongva people lived successfully for thousands of years, among the forests, marshes and meadows. This land has drastically shifted and transformed many times over, sometimes evolving in tandem with nature, and sometimes by the imagination and then the hand of man. Although the geography here now may contain the very same species of trees, plants, and animals that have existed for hundreds, if not thousands of years, the landscape is altered, unrecognizable to those who have passed before.

There are more trees here on this overcast winter day than people: Coast Live Oak, Alder, Willow, Cottonwood, and Sycamore. There are Mexican Elderberry, Lemonadeberry, Coffeeberry, and Toyon, all peopled with a variety of nesting birds that are riding out the winter here. These are trees the Tongva would recognize -- trees that sustained them, provided them sustenance (the acorn), shelter (Willow and Sycamore branches), and medicine (Toyon leaves and bark for aches and pains). Everything had a use.

I'm walking the grounds with a friend who's a biologist specializing in California native plants and bird populations, getting to know this ancient stretch of the San Gabriel. We're also discussing the issues surrounding the proposed Discovery Center, a new educational complex that will replace the small cabins that have served as the Nature Center since 1939. The new building, as well as the massive new landscaping surrounding it, is slated to break ground some time in April of this year. We try to visualize how this space will change, what will remain, and what will be lost. And we try to picture what the topography was like before the river's path was arrested in a concrete channel, and the terrain transformed from riparian zones and marshlands to a complex apparatus of Los Angeles' infrastructure.

Lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia), an evergreen shrub and its berries, can be used for dyes and lemon flavoring | Photo: Laura Vena
Lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia), an evergreen shrub and its berries, can be used for dyes and lemon flavoring | Photo: Laura Vena
Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri). This flowering perennial shrub is well suited to the watershed's sandy, loose soil | Photo: Laura Vena
Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri). This flowering perennial shrub is well suited to the watershed's sandy, loose soil | Photo: Laura Vena

If we delete the wires and towers and fences and buildings, and look back 75 million years at this exact spot, we may see hunch-backed, long-tusked Mammut Americanum (American mastodons), bulky, long-toothed Smilodon fatalis (saber-tooth tigers), and giant, armored Paramylodon Harlani (Harlan's Ground Sloth), along with elegant Canis Dirus (Dire wolf), and Bison Antiquus (Ancient Bison), whose faces literally looked like those of old men.

That period of ancient beasts was followed by 8,000 years of Tongva settlements and hunting and foraging camps along the San Gabriel River, which flowed freely with natural banks, changing its course constantly and some times joining the Los Angeles River. This was a bountiful riparian habitat, lined with forests, marshes, and grasslands, and covered in native grasses and trees. Each environment nurtured a different ecosystem of life, creating an incredible diversity that provided the Tongva with a wild variety of ingredients for food, tools, and art.

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The Spanish settlers in the late 18th century didn't wait for evolution, but instead reinvented the land to accommodate their own desires. The introduction of agriculture and livestock necessitated a change in the terrain. In order to change the land, the Spaniards needed free labor. So they looked to the Tongva and other native peoples of the area. The missionaries were instrumental in gaining the cooperation of the people, who were already living self sufficiently off of the land and initially had little use for the Spaniards. Legend says that when the Tongva aimed to drive out the Spaniards, one of the padres placed a painting of "Our Lady of Sorrows" on the ground. The Tongva (renamed Gabrielinos), were moved and welcomed the strangers with open arms; the artwork had enchanted them.

The land continued to change as the desires of people in power transformed. In the 20th century, the flooding of homes adjacent to the river brought about a massive endeavor: the channelizing of miles and miles of river, to rein in its wondrous wild. It took quite a lot of imagination to envision this drastic alteration of an earthly paradise into something so very foreign to it. Once again, the dream of men became reality.

And the landscape is set to shift again as another dreaming takes hold.

This rendering of the proposed Discovery Center includes an outdoor classroom and a recreation of a wetland that would be part of one of several construction phases. Image by San Gabriel River Discovery Center
This rendering of the proposed Discovery Center includes an outdoor classroom and a recreation of a wetland that would be part of one of several construction phases. Image by San Gabriel River Discovery Center

According to the Discovery Center Authority, the planned San Gabriel River Discovery Center will provide a hands-on, indoor and outdoor learning experience for local students, families, and nature enthusiasts. The Center promises to fulfill its mission to "inspire environmental stewardship by providing accessible and engaging watershed and environmental education to the public," as well as its vision for a "healthy and vibrant natural area and center where people gain the knowledge and desire to improve the San Gabriel River region." The project has been in the works for decades.

Belinda Valles Faustinos, the former Excecutive Officer of the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, is a San Gabriel Valley resident and one of the principle visionaries for the Discovery Center. She spoke about the "a-ha" moment she had coming home from her work at the Santa Monica Mountain Conservancy and seeing a tremendous lack of open space in her own community. Since that time, she's made it her mission to bring attention to the need for more ecologically sound open spaces and to promote the concept that "open space, water conservation, and habitat restoration are intertwined."

An active equestrian community still thrives and rides along the San Gabriel River | Photo: Laura Vena
An active equestrian community still thrives and rides along the San Gabriel River | Photo: Laura Vena
Nature continuously adjusts to constant developments in man-made landscapes | Photo: Laura Vena
Nature continuously adjusts to constant developments in man-made landscapes | Photo: Laura Vena

But not everyone is pleased with the proposed center. The $30 million project, which includes the building of a 14,000 square foot building, a 116-car parking lot, and other structures, will demolish the existing Nature Center and its surrounding habitat, which has raised the ire of various community members and local organizations. Fueled by misgivings about big government agencies and a lack of open communication with community members on the part of the center bureaucracy, there is a deep-seated lack of trust by some and a profound concern for what will be lost.

Groups like the Friends of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area have a much different take on the proposed center. They argue that the development is unnecessarily "costly, unpopular, and environmentally destructive," and that the bird and animal species, some of them endangered, will be displaced or worse by the construction. They refer to the Audubon's designation of an IBA, or Important Birding Area, given to Whittier Narrows, to the destruction of the older, charming, community-focused Nature Center, and to a concern for possible new limits on public access.

Guadalupe Rodriguez, a member of the above-mentioned group and a recent college graduate, grew up near Whittier Narrows and was deeply affected by this easily accessible woodlands. She speaks with great reverence about volunteering as a high school student at the Narrows, and the great impact of experiencing nature for the first time. She is concerned about the tearing down of trees for a parking lot, and the displacing of bird and other species that will happen during the development stage of the project. For Rodriguez, destroying existing habitat to restore another version of it just doesn't make sense.

Even members of various local Native American groups don't agree on how to proceed. Members of the Kizh Nation attended the Center's public meetings to protest the disturbing of the land, which holds many culturally significant objects, and possibly even remains, under its surface. When their concerns were voiced at the meeting, they felt unheard. Still, Julia Bogany, a Gabrieleno / Tongva tribal elder, said that the Discovery Center, for which she was a consultant, would honor the values of her people by teaching visitors to be good stewards of the land. She believes focusing on culture is pointless. "Let's not discuss culture. We are 500 nations that are so different. We have to discuss values."

All parties seem to agree on some basics. They all want Whittier Narrows to be a space that teaches stewardship of the land through an education program; they want to honor the natural and cultural legacy of the locale; and they want to care for and restore the natural elements. How these goals are achieved, though, and to what extent vary greatly between the interested parties.

The Nature Center was founded in 1939 by the Audubon Society and is currently owned and managed by the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation | Photo: Carribean Fragoza
The Nature Center was founded in 1939 by the Audubon Society and is currently owned and managed by the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation | Photo: Carribean Fragoza
Stuffed animals, dusty display cases and hand-drawn maps give the Nature Center an old-timey, nostalgic air that many (but not all) find charming | Photo: Carribean Fragoza
Stuffed animals, dusty display cases and hand-drawn maps give the Nature Center an old-timey, nostalgic air that many (but not all) find charming | Photo: Carribean Fragoz

Humans are known to translate their geography and drastically transform it into an environment that suits their needs and fulfills their desires for a certain lifestyle. So, what do we long for now? What do we desperately need? Ultimately, what is at stake and what is causing the controversy is deeply rooted in how each group and individual perceives this space and the nature of their relationship to this specific piece of geography.

Whittier Narrows has a long legacy of providing natural space for exploration, education, and recreation to the local communities, especially for those who can not easily travel to surrounding natural wonders, like the San Gabriel Mountains or the Pacific Ocean, due to a lack of transportation or funds. This public space, easily accessible and carrying echoes of its paradise past, has literally been an oasis for the communities surrounding it for decades.

For some, this space holds a promise of beauty to come or to be returned to. For others, it already embodies this as is. For them, it is already sacred land.

Along the paths of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area, a couple of men are galloping on horseback, and a young man is riding his BMX bike through the dirt trails until the superintendent asks him to walk it. There are traces here of the past, but there is also the indelible mark of man: lines of tire tracks in the dirt, the electrical towers impossible to avoid, and a palpable lack of funding or resources to improve the grounds, as charming as they still are.

There's a certain nostalgia driving all the iterations of what should be done with this large strip of natural space. This nostalgia could be very close -- "This was the first place I ever experienced nature and it changed my life profoundly and forever" -- or it could be further away, creating a longing for an experience of the land that no one has yet known. This type of nostalgia longs to know and experience what was lost, to reclaim a pristine, prolific land of woodlands, marshes, and meadows, far from the freeways and concrete so prolific in this metropolis.

So what or who do we honor? Those who consider this is a sacred space or those seeking a reclamation of an idyllic past, and is there a way to honor both? We can hope or we can ask that those in positions of power are open to two-way communication, that they listen to all parties and consider their concerns, and that they don't allow their dreams of a perfectly constructed natural space to crush the realities of those who find it already beautiful, already authentic, already perfect.

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