The Bird Lady Vs. The Tree Outlaw 

An environmental unlove story

Wednesday, Mar 28 2007

“Kneel down here so you can say you touched a native California plant,” commands Robert “Roy” van de Hoek, holding a ratty tangle of brown stems and fading green leaves between his fingers.

The grass is unimpressive aesthetically speaking, but I do as I’m told. To van de Hoek, this California salt grass is nothing less than a sign of the perfect order of nature.

“It’s one of our guides,” van De Hoek announces. “It’s one of the species that lets us know we’re standing in a wetland.”

click to flip through (2) Native intelligence: Roy van de Hoek looks for true California grasses.
  • Native intelligence: Roy van de Hoek looks for true California grasses.

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Actually, the ground we’re standing on is dry, but beneath us runs enough brackish moisture to sustain the salt grass, a spidery ground cover that blankets stretches of coastal L.A.’s Ballona Valley like a sparse and irregular lace.

Van de Hoek, a Los Angeles County parks supervisor, has been conducting unofficial public tours of the Ballona Wetlands and Sand Dunes on the first weekend of every month for the past eight and a half years (April 1 marks his 100th Sunday outing). But last summer, vandalism charges were brought against him by the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, and he was barred from entering the property, which is protected by a fence secured with three padlocks — one belonging to California Fish and Game, another to the state-run Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, and another shared by several bickering groups, including the Wetlands Action Network (founded by van de Hoek’s fiancée, Marcia Hanscom) and Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, which once sued Playa Vista but now works with the developer. Van de Hoek’s vandalism charges — which could have landed him in jail for up to two years, or cost him $27,000 in fines — were dismissed in late October, and now, on this mid-November morning, just in time for the winter bird migration season, he has returned with the flocks and the flora.

“Look,” he says, pointing toward a thin patch of flowering leaves. “It’s a marsh heliotrope, struggling to come back.” The plant’s threads bear a sparse covering of pale-green leaves — a condition, says van de Hoek, exacerbated by the shade of a shrubby grass competitor nearby known by its botanical name, myoporum. “It can’t compete,” he complains. “Too much shade in the wetland will wipe it out completely.”

Myoporum is one of the two non-native plants van de Hoek was caught destroying in the wetland and its environs in violation of the law, according to the City Attorney’s complaint. The other was a Ficus microcarpa, also known as laurel fig or Chinese banyan, in particular a Ficus microcarpa that grows on the banks of the Del Rey Lagoon in full view of the apartment building where he lives. Many of his neighbors love the tree. Van de Hoek does not.

To several in the community, the charges against van de Hoek seemed silly. How could a guy who clearly knows his salt grass from his pampas grass be arrested for clearing away the branches of a few plants that aren’t even native to the area? Some thought the legal campaign against him had been orchestrated by his enemies within the corporation that runs Playa Vista, the housing and retail development that occupies 1,087 acres of former wetland. His fiancée noted that Playa Vista president Steve Soboroff contributed generously to City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s campaign when he ran for attorney general last fall. And Tom Mesereau, the lawyer van de Hoek shares with Michael Jackson, circulated a tape of a TV segment produced by the city casting aspersions on van de Hoek.

“Many believe [Delgadillo] was led into filing these false and misleading criminal charges by megadeveloper Playa Vista and its allies,” read a press release circulated by van de Hoek’s defenders last fall. Someone, they clearly believed, was out to get van de Hoek.

In a sense, they were right. Playa Vista LLC certainly teems with people who don’t like van de Hoek. At public meetings about future development projects, fliers mysteriously appear on the seats discrediting van de Hoek as a criminal (he was charged with misdemeanor trespassing once before, when he cut a fence on the Carrizo Plain to free deer on Bureau of Land Management property). But even within the environmental community, there are those who don’t like van de Hoek. When he ran for the Sierra Club board on an anti-immigration platform, he was tarred as a racist. (“I just thought it was healthy to have a discussion about immigration in a country that uses so many resources,” he says now, noting that he himself was born in Holland.) Others are simply put off by his tendency toward confrontation over compromise. And some of van de Hoek’s neighbors, people he has scolded for meddling with the ecosystem in the Del Rey Lagoon near his apartment, and a few who would prefer to see the muddy-bottomed, smelly lagoon turned into a concrete-bottomed lake — many of these people don’t like van de Hoek.

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