Army Corps' Eco-Disaster in Valley 

Army Corps homophobia may have prompted destruction of 40 acres of habitat

Thursday, Jan 10 2013

See also: Before/After Photos of Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Area Devastation

Absurd, unnecessary social engineering and possibly illegal environmental tactics — that's what some activists and politicians are calling the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' surprise destruction before Christmas of more than 40 acres of prime wildlife and vegetative habitat five miles north of the Getty Center in the Sepulveda Dam Basin.

Facing increasing criticism for bulldozing a cherished bird habitat and wetlands ecosystem spanning 40 football fields — in a city where most wetlands were long ago destroyed — Corps officials insisted the federal flood-control agency had no choice, in part because cruising gay men and homeless campers had flocked there and endangered the public.

Related Stories

  • Hot DUI Crackdown

    It will be one of the warmest weekends so far this year.  And the heat will be on the streets, too. Yes, it's time once again for our DUI checkpoint and patrol cheat sheet, in which the Los Angeles Police Department and other agencies warn you about where they'll be...
  • Where the Crime Is 6

    Earlier this month Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck announced that violent crime had increased in the first half of 2014. The city saw a 2.8 percent bump compared the same period last year. But while the increase was small, it was the first time the city had seen...
  • USC Grad Student Found Dead, Might Have Been Assaulted 5

    A 24-year-old USC graduate student was found dead in an apartment near campus this morning, police said. An LAPD statement says the young man "may have been the victim of an assault." The discovery in the 1200 block of 30th Street was reported to the Los Angeles Police Department's Southwest...
  • Spider-Man Kicked Out of Echo Park Lotus Festival (PHOTO) 2

    In 2010 the masked characters known as the superheroes of Hollywood Boulevard won a huge federal court case that allows them to continue to perform on the Walk of Fame near Highland Avenue. See also: Superheroes Allowed Back On Hollywood Boulevard Thanks To Federal Judge's Ruling The Los Angeles Police Department...
  • Panties Beware

    There's pantsing, and then there's underpantsing. Police this week circulated security images (on the next page) of a man they say has taken pantsing to a new low: He has allegedly pulled down not just the pants of his female victims, but also their underwear. The women were attacked as...

That rationale is news to West Valley Division Los Angeles Police Department Lt. Anne-Marie Fuller, who for six months has overseen vice patrols in Sepulveda Basin in Encino. Fuller tells L.A. Weekly she's unaware of homeless or lewd-behavior problems beyond those commonly seen in parks and woods patrolled by LAPD. "It sounds kind of strange," Fuller says, adding she'd "never heard anything" about a mounting threat to public safety.

LAPD says it may have a pending investigation in the area. Meanwhile, Deputy City Attorney Raffy Astvasadoorian says he has prosecuted only seven minor cases there, for misdemeanor illegal camping, with most fines set at just $100. Corps spokesman Dave Palmer insisted to the Weekly that the complaints it got from law enforcement were "verbal," including from the LAPD and from the City Attorney's Office — but Astvasadoorian denies that city attorneys complained.

Now, state Sen. Kevin de Leon is demanding that the Corps make public its records of law-enforcement complaints about gays and the homeless, as well as a full accounting of which officials decided to destroy the habitat and why.

Corps Col. Mark Toy approved the project, which his aides defended as necessary to protect the dam and to remove non-native plants. But of the Corps' claim of a worsening threat from gays and homeless campers, de Leon says: "It's silly."

State Sen. Fran Pavley, a well-regarded environmentalist, says she will ask California Attorney General Kamala Harris to jump into the debacle if Toy, the top local boss, adopts an attitude that the feds have the "right" to do as they please.

The devastation is great to the uplands and wetlands near the 101/405 intersection, bounded on the west by the Los Angeles River, which meanders through the Sepulveda Basin before becoming a cement channel.

Pavley asks, "Was it a mistake? I want to hear the tone and reaction to what has happened, to see if this is just a bad mistake that they wish could be done over — or whether they will defend it as their right."

Nobody has apologized yet. Corps officials said Toy was on vacation and couldn't respond to the controversy, which erupted Dec. 24 on Encino-Tarzana Patch.com.

But de Leon says, "If they had a public-safety problem in Central Park in New York, Griffith Park, Golden Gate Park or Balboa Park in San Diego, you'd never hear of them eviscerating 40 acres. ... It's absurd. That problem is everywhere. But you don't hear of folks plowing through sensitive habitat that's home to different species of birds and a fragile ecosystem."

The area had for three decades attracted warblers, hawks, falcons, swifts and myriad other birds who nest and feed in thickets of willows, Fremont cottonwoods, box elders, Mexican elderberries and native shrubs.

That's all gone.

"I think it's homophobic at the very least," says Lewis MacAdams, president of Friends of the Los Angeles River. "It's nature-phobic. It's like they're taking revenge for this [woodlands and wetland habitat] growing up."

Muriel Kotin, youth activities chairwoman of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society, called the Corps' claim that public safety needed to be restored "unconscionable."

In early December, Kotin came across Toy's new "vegetation management" plan, which had been quietly posted on the Army Corps of Engineers' website without any public meetings. So Kotin contacted the Corps on behalf of the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Areas Steering Committee, a group of nature experts and enthusiasts.

Corps officials told the steering committee not to worry.

Deborah Lamb, a landscape architect who helped Toy create the vegetation-removal plan, wrote to Kotin on Dec. 12 that the Corps would follow federal policy supporting dam "structural integrity" and would "reduce crime ... by making the area more visible to LAPD patrolling." One key goal, Lamb wrote to Kotin, was to eliminate "hiding places for lewd activity and homeless camps."

The Sepulveda Basin and nearby Woodley Park received four out of five stars on the website cruisinggays.com.

However, Kris Ohlenkamp, of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society, who discovered the carnage on Dec. 22 during the society's annual bird count, says his group was never provided statistics suggesting that gay cruising, homeless camping or other crimes were causing a crisis.

Lamb on Dec. 12 assured the citizen committee, "Nothing is going to be implemented quickly due to funding resources and labor resources." And the official plan declared "no significant impact" on the ecosystem.

Now, the Corps is admitting that, on Dec. 10, heavy equipment had already begun ripping into the growth and nature paths.

Because Toy and other federal officials failed to hold a public meeting or to attempt any outreach regarding their real intentions, none of the hundreds of people who have volunteered over the decades, slowly creating the ecosystem, had a chance to challenge the Corps under federal environmental protection laws.

Bizarrely, the Corps destroyed some vegetation it planted as early as the late 1970s, when taxpayers footed the bill for restoration. Now taxpayers are likely to pay twice more — once for the bulldozing bill and again if the ruined ecosystem is restored.

When a Weekly reporter visited a few days ago, even public paths and decorative markers installed near a pedestrian bridge across a small stream had been shattered by earth movers.

"What's very troubling is that this speaks to a larger issue as we try to bring the Los Angeles River [restoration project] to fruition, because [the Army Corps] has partial jurisdiction," de Leon says. "I'm very concerned, because they have a penchant for running over local interests — all over the country." What they did in L.A., De Leon says, "is very symbolic."

Ohlenkamp, of the Audubon Society, says Corps officials are "definitely saying the primary purpose of what they've done is 'public safety.' ... They say the ends justify the means. The 'ends' are a clear, open space where the police can see forever and the Corps can see forever, and there will no longer be people wandering through the bushes."

A statement from Corps Operations Branch chief Tomas Beauchamp-Hernandez claims that the Corps received public-safety complaints from the city of L.A.'s obscure Office of Public Safety within the Department of General Services, which until Jan. 1 had law enforcement responsibility for the Sepulveda Dam Basin area. Los Angeles General Services chief Tony Royster did not return the Weekly's calls.

Beauchamp-Hernandez also claimed that someone from the L.A. City Council complained of safety problems, which he described as a "paramount" Corps issue. The city councilman for that area, Tony Cardenas, just joined the U.S. Congress and did not return calls from the Weekly.

Already, some homeless people have merely shifted north into the wooded, 180-acre Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Area leased from the Corps by the L.A. Parks Department. There, a fresh homeless camp has risen right across from the clearcut area.

Sen. Pavley warned that the Corps' credibility is now at stake because the federal agency — part of the U.S. Army — is involved in environmental and waterway projects throughout California.

But Corps spokesman Jay Field downplayed the debacle, as have others. They have said their real error was in failing to fully inform the public of the coming destruction, and not the destruction itself.

"Hindsight is 20-20, and perhaps as in any endeavor one can do better," Field said in a statement.

See also: Photos of the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Area devastation

Related Content

Now Trending

Los Angeles Concert Tickets


  • Here's What Happens When President Obama Comes to L.A.
    President Obama came to town again to rake in some funds and clog some traffic. The only view of his visit you probably saw were the brake lights of the car ahead of you in the traffic jam he caused, but here's what was really going on. All photos by Ted Soqui.
  • 21st Annual Classic Cars "Cruise Night" in Glendale
    On Saturday, spectators of all ages were out in multitudes on a beautiful summer night in Glendale to celebrate the 21st annual Cruise Night. Brand Boulevard, one of the main streets through downtown Glendale, was closed to traffic and lined with over 250 classic, pre-1979 cars. There was plenty of food to be had and many of the businesses on Brand stayed open late for the festivities The evening ended with fireworks and a 50th anniversary concert from The Kingsmen, who performed their ultimate party hit, "Louie, Louie." All photos by Jared Cowan.
  • The World Cup Celebrated And Mourned By Angelenos
    The World Cup has taken Los Angeles by storm. With viewings beginning at 9 a.m., soccer fans have congregated at some of the best bars in the city including The Village Idiot, Goal, The Parlour on Melrose, Big Wang's and more. Whether they're cheering for their native country, favorite players or mourning the USA's loss, Angelenos have paid close attention to the Cup, showing that soccer is becoming more than a fad. All photos by Daniel Kohn.