By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In the days aftera fire blackened more than 800 acres of Griffith Park, Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge got into the habit of explaining to the public and media how the park would rebound. “There’ll be yellow mustard all over these hills in a few months,” he’d announce. Or, “If there’s any rain next winter, the hills will be filled with yellow mustard seed by this time next year. It’ll look like Oz.”
There’s only one problem with the mustards, those rangy green plants that bloom bright yellow in the Santa Monica Mountains after fires: Just about every respectable ecologist wants them eradicated.
Wild mustard, introduced by well-intentioned fire managers in the 1930s, tops the Los Angeles City Department of Recreation and Parks’ list of “dirty dozen” invasive weeds, and the common black mustard plant turns up in every guide to noxious wild-land weeds. It’s not surprising, then, that LaBonge’s remarks sent e-mails flying among local conservation groups.
“He claimed that Griffith Park is on the path to recovery and that there will be a sea of mustard next year, as if that were a good thing,” wrote a local ecosystem advocate in an e-mail. “As you know, despite its ‘pretty’ yellow flowers, mustards highly impact wild lands, displacing native plant and animal biodiversity.”
LaBonge had an answer to this complaint once it got back to him. “I just found out from Keeley that the mustard that blooms so pretty up here isn’t native,” he said, referring to Jon Keeley, the fire ecologist from the United States Geological Survey whom the media relied on heavily for expertise in the wake of the fires.
Keeley had corrected LaBonge live on the air during Larry Mantle’s KPCC radio show AirTalk. “You know what I say to that?“ LaBonge later proclaimed. “I say, ‘Hey, I’m not native!’ I’m for diversity in Los Angeles. I welcome everybody — even the mustard.”
LaBonge said this on a Tuesday morning, four days after the fire, on a hike with his wife, Brigid, a neighbor and two reporters along the western edge of the fire-blackened area. We walked up a spine of green ice plant to a garden called Captain’s Roost, which had been saved by the city water system — now sprinkling randomly at our ankles.
On each side of the ridge the ground turned abruptly black. But another water system, which once fed nearby Dante’s View, the garden LaBonge tended, had been broken for more than a year. “I watched poor Dante’s go up,” LaBonge said. “That was hard.”
LaBonge was insisting the fire was a terrible tragedy. Bunnies had been incinerated midstride — “they just ran out of air,” he said — and the spindly redwood tree he had planted 10 years ago in honor of his mother was badly singed, perhaps never to recover. But in some not-too-deeply-buried sense, the affable councilman was having the time of his life.
In sneakers and a sweatshirt the color of mustard, he bounded over slippery rocks and steep slopes like a bulky mountain goat, greeting familiar hikers in Korean and Spanish to the delight of the media at his speedy heels. The fire had made LaBonge a celebrity.People who care about the ecology of the eastern flank of the Santa Monica Mountains — even people who like LaBonge personally, because of his passionate civic boosterism — found LaBonge’s sudden fame a little scary. His perceived status as an expert on Griffith Park points to a key issue plaguing the 4,000-plus-acre urban wilderness, a swath of land that has thrived yet has also suffered from a public policy that can be most accurately described as official neglect: Griffith Park has no science-minded advocate to speak on behalf of its ecosystem.
In the past half century, it has hardly even been studied.
“Griffith Park is a black hole of biological information,” says Dan Cooper, an independent conservation biologist who had been retained by community groups just before the fire to catalog the park’s flora and fauna. “There’s no park biologist, only maintenance and rangers. Ninety percent of the plant life we’ve cataloged dates back to the turn of the century; collecting stopped in the 1940s. Rare species could live up there that no one even knows about.”
At a recent public meeting of the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks, a phalanx of park advocates from the Sierra Club complained bitterly that even the Griffith Park Master Plan contains little useful information on the park’s ecosystem. (The master plan, which proposes carving up the park into developed land, wilderness and cultivated park space, is widely viewed as a flawed document, because it doesn’t contain what environmentalists call a “needs assessment” to determine various uses of the land.)
“They say they have no money to do these studies,” Cooper complains. “But other cities are light-years ahead of Los Angeles in terms of park biology.” Chicago, for instance, has a consortium of 206 nonprofits overseeing its 200,000-acre metropolitan-area wilderness; New York City since 1984 has had a team of biologists, scientists and restoration ecologists tending its park system, which includes vast wild tracts in Central Park. Even Cleveland Metroparks has not just one park biologist, but several, including an aquatic biologist to keep track of the fish.