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Sepulveda Basin Razing: Why Public Agencies and Community Groups Need to Get on the Same Page

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A man wearing a blood red hoodie cycled past me as I walked through the devastated remains of a Sepulveda Basin's South Wildlife Reserve. His solemn expression brooked no greeting. On his bike, he glided on the newly carved dirt roads left by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Fallen trees and charred leaves were littered on either side of him.

As I walked, I heard the soft squish of my shoes hitting the soil. Every so often, I stop and an eerie, incessant rustle starts on my side. I look and, after a few minutes, I see a small bird looking for refuge amid the ruin. This lush area now looked the way I would have imagined the forest to look after fires licked it clean in "Bambi." Nature, it appears, was banished; in its wake, an air of desolation settled.

By now, you may have heard that while the rest of us were planning our holidays last December, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were leveling an area in San Fernando Valley's Sepulveda Basin. The project was a Vegetative Management plan "to optimize wildlife habitat and native vegetation," according to the 2011 Sepulveda Dam Master Plan.

Somehow I fail to see the management in clearing about 43 acres of land, which contains 80 percent native vegetative cover (according to San Fernando Valley Audubon Conservation Chairman Kris Ohlenkamp). The Army Corps began the project flying under the radars of Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Area Steering Committee (SBWASC) and the public.

"The overall intent is to comply with Corps' policy regarding the Dam's structural integrity and improve the safety of the area by eliminating hiding places for lewd activity and homeless camps, and reduce crime in the area by making the area more visible to LAPD patrolling the area," wrote Deborah Lamb, Landscape Architect at the Army Corps, to the SBWASC after the work had begun. Strangely, the area now seems even more a place where lewd conduct could take place -- If beauty inspires beauty, I suppose the opposite holds true as well.

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Three teens walked by me as I followed the gaping tire tread tracks on the dirt road. They all knew nothing of what went on during the holidays. To them, this was the remains of a wildfire some years back. Given a few months, how many more would simply not know what to make of this clearing?

I live not five miles from the area and I ask myself, "How did I miss it?" I can only assume many more have also missed the wreckage. Only a chance bird count by the Audubon Society alerted the general public.

In 2010, the South Wildlife Reserve was reclassified as a "vegetation management area," which entailed a five-year process to replace existing plants with sustainable varieties. The plan would come in three phases: eradicate invasive plants, apply herbicides on the second year, then re-plant on the fourth year. To the Army Corps, clearing of existing vegetation was just another step in that long process, but to the wilderness organizations, the act was a desecration.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Army Corps Deputy District Commander Alexander Deraney admitted that "somehow, we did not clearly communicate" to environmentalists and community groups. That quote is at the heart of the matter when it comes to all things public.

Just like personal relationships, clear communication is necessary for success. It means vigilance on the part of residents, who need to take note of all the changes, minute as they may seem from one master plan to another (in this case, from the 1981 to the 2011 Sepulveda Basin Master Plan), who attend the meetings and express their opinions.

It means transparency and compassion on the part of public servants, who are faced with the daunting task of planning and realizing projects that affect millions. It may be easier to be subsumed in project timelines, budgets, and look for the most expedient way to accomplish goals, but there are some things that once done, cannot easily be undone.

If everything was done by the book before the Army Corps proceeded with razing the area, then the book needs to be re-written it seems. The public dismay at the agency's actions points to a new way of doing things.

For now, the razing has stopped while the Army Corps meets with community groups. I hope the meetings will not be a pro forma affair, but an opening of communication lines not just for this particular project, but for all future projects. The county's quality of life hangs in the balance.

The Encino Neighborhood Council Parks Committee will hold a meeting to discuss the clearing on January 7, 2013 at the Balboa Sports Complex at Balboa and Burbank Boulevard, Encino. Find more information at the San Fernando Valley Audubon.

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Photos by Carren Jao

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