By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Teresa Savaikie slammed her Ford Escort to a halt on the parkway’s outside lane, near the spot where a chunky construction worker was hauling up water from a riverbed. Ignoring the blaring horns of outraged suburban motorists, the barefoot woman, blond and good-looking in a classic Southern California way, approached the worker.
“Don‘t you know there are fish in there?” she asked him.
“Yeah, I seen some fish,” he said.
“Well, you’re not supposed to be sucking them up with that hose,” she said.
“Hey, I‘m just working here. You don’t like it, call the city.”
She turned the full force of her blue, mascaraed eyes on the guy. “I need one of those fish. Do you have a cup or something?”
Savaikie and the fish, a small inconspicuous creature called arroyo chub, were about to become unlikely characters in an intense drama playing out in the hinterlands of Los Angeles County, one that may turn out to be the biggest environmental battle of the decade. When the curtain drops, we just might be left with a new definition of wilderness and a new approach to protecting it, or, failing that, a free pass for the kind of development that ignores it.
Mixing a soccer mom and an environmental activist together might not always seem like a recipe for a David Lynch movie, but it was in this case. Indeed, it‘s safe to say that when Teresa Savaikie got married and moved in 1999 from working-class Highland Park to the uber-suburb of Valencia, California, she had no intention of walking point for a Heidegger-quoting, Jesuit-fired, philosopher-turned-environmental iconoclast named Kieran Suckling. That was before she knew that the Newhall Land and Farming Company planned to build the largest housing development in Los Angeles County history on the banks of the Santa Clara River. The Santa Clara, which runs for 116 miles from Agua Dulce, a high-desert, Old West--feeling community 44 miles north of Los Angeles, to the Pacific, is the largest natural river left in Southern California. At a time when millions of dollars are being spent to restore some semblance of nature to the much-abused Los Angeles River, it looked like the Newhall Land and Farming Company was about to turn a tree-lined ribbon of water into a concrete garbage can.
For more than a decade, a small cadre of women -- old hippies, really -- had bucked business-as-usual by fighting development in this outlying suburb of Los Angeles. But they had been relying on the traditional argument that there wasn’t enough water to fill hot tubs and water lawns, working on the assumption that Southern California was still like the movie Chinatown. Their arguments may yet prove persuasive, but with that strange little fish and other odd animals she noticed in her very back yard, Savaikie came upon something even bigger -- her little corner of what could fairly be called a global holocaust.
As it happened, soon after she moved to Valencia, Savaikie saw a bizarre neon-orange-and-black bird outside her window. “I thought it had escaped from a cage,” she said, laughing. She watched the bird for a few days and realized her mistake. Her husband bought her an Audubon dictionary, where she found a picture of a hooded oriole that matched the creature darting among the palm trees in her neighborhood. “I wish I had never seen that damn bird,” she says now. “I went back to the store and got another book, it was called The Lives of North American Birds. It had the status of each bird. I realized all these birds were declining. The reason the book kept listing was ‘loss of habitat.’ Declining brown bird, declining this bird. Everything was declining.”
She also discovered that Valencia, a locked-down, affluent Republican suburb that looks custom-built for the mallified masses, is actually a pretty remarkable place. She found out, too, that a lot of what is remarkable about it happens right where Newhall Ranch is set to rise, along the banks of the Santa Clara River.
Life congregates around water, especially in arid and semiarid places like Southern California. Behind phalanxes of oil-seeping auto malls and Home Depots, five federally listed endangered species live on the stretch of the Santa Clara River that runs through Los Angeles County. Their names alone help explain why few knew about them: the unarmored threespine stickleback, the arroyo toad, the Least Bell‘s vireo, the southwestern willow flycatcher and the slender-horned spineflower.
As an ecosystem, the Santa Clara River is no joke. From the river’s headwaters to its outlet at the Pacific, you can find 10 species of plants and animals on the federal endangered-species list, and these are just the plants and animals that someone cared about enough to badger the federal government into protecting. For example, in San Francisquito Creek that day, Savaikie and her construction-worker helper captured an arroyo chub, a rare fish that doesn‘t receive federal protection but has been given special status by the state of California.
Although the Newhall Land Company hadn’t yet received final approval for Newhall Ranch, it was quietly amputating the Santa Clara and its tributaries, filling in wetlands, building new wells, and pouring concrete to control natural flooding. In smaller subdivisions with names like Avignon and Bridgeport, megahouses were being constructed up to the water‘s edge. Savaikie worked the phones, telling her story to brand-name environmental groups like the National Audubon Society. They sympathized, but claimed they didn’t have the time or money to fight development in every sprawling suburb. And while they gave lip service to protecting endangered species, they didn‘t get excited about an obscure toad or a 3-inch fish with a weird name. “They kept asking, ’Did you talk to the Center for Biological Diversity?‘” Savaikie said.
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