Birds of Delay

MORE THAN 280 SPECIES of birds have visited Hansen Dam, which holds the record for most varieties seen in a day in the San Fernando Valley at 120 different kinds. And now one of those species -- the least Bell's vireo, a tiny, gray bird no bigger than a pocket comb -- is holding up a multimillion-dollar film shoot that some residents say should take place elsewhere in the environmentally sensitive flood control basin, if at all.

The original script for Helldorado, a Universal Western set in Brazil whose pre-production was to begin September 1, called for the construction of a Brazilian village complete with lush plantings, 400 cattle, and a cast and crew of up to 175 people daily. At the end of the three-week shoot, the entire village was to be destroyed in a cattle stampede and explosion.

Now, Helldorado is waiting for the departure of the vireo, a federally listed endangered species nesting next door to the site of the proposed set. Extremely sensitive to changes in its riparian habitat, this migratory bird returns year after year to hatch its young in a willow forest near a former quarry that nature has reclaimed as a lake. Once plentiful throughout California and Mexico, the species was on the brink of extinction when it received the federal listing in 1986.

Location manager Murray Miller, a 23-year veteran of the film industry, said the production was not told of any potential dangers to the vireo, or the other threatened/endangered species nearby: the California gnatcatcher, a blue-gray bird that is a year-round resident; and a small fish known as the Santa Ana sucker, whose habitat in the Big Tujunga Creek constitutes 25 percent of its total remaining native range, according to the Federal Register of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants.

"When we located the area we wanted to shoot in," explains Murray, "we contacted the Department of Recreation and Parks and the Army Corps, who didn't mention these environmental concerns. We found out about the vireo by serendipity."

While scouting, Miller and his crew happened upon Army Corps ecologist Carvel Bass, who alerted them to vireos nesting scant feet from the area where they planned to shoot. All vireos should be gone by September 15, when they make their annual southward migration.

"We did not cavalierly pick this area, and we are taking the community's concerns very seriously," says Miller, who is now working with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to make his production as eco-friendly as possible. Officials will screen a plant list to ensure no invasive, non-native plants will be brought in, and have provided a list of approved arborists, ornithologists, and ichthyologists to conduct wildlife surveys of the area. The production also plans to lessen any damage by planting more native plant species upon its departure.

"We are doing everything within our power to make the science work for us and the environment," continues Miller. "Would it have been better if we started this dialogue sooner? Yes. Did we know to do it? No."

And that, according to community activist and local resident Deb Baumann, is a huge part of the problem.

"When I learned of the proposed shoot and its length and complexity, I phoned the Mayor's Office on July 20 and warned them this issue was a time bomb waiting to go off," said Baumann, a member of the Hansen Dam Lakes Coalition.

However, the first meeting on the subject between the Corps, production officials, and concerned community members was invite-only, and did not take place until August 15 -- two weeks before set construction was to start.

According to Baumann, that was not enough time to significantly change production plans, and she says the mostly working-class neighborhood of horse lovers was already deeply distrustful of the Army Corps. The Corps began dumping concrete, rebar and other construction debris into one end of the larger lake in June, in what they now admit was an ill-advised attempt to turn the 60-foot-lake into a shallow, 3-foot-deep wetlands area.

The debris came from the adjacent Hansen Dam Swim Lakes project that was originally budgeted at $900,000 but wound up costing more than $15 million.

Baumann said the Corps' attitude of ownership and not stewardship of public lands is an ongoing problem. "The Corps did not provide promised information as to when explosions would take place during the recent Charlie's Angels 2 shoot," says Baumann, an avid equestrian who feared explosions might spook her horse or others'. "Yet, the day a large explosion was to be filmed, Corps representatives were on hand to witness it, even writing it up for their Web site."

Bass, the Corps ecologist, admits there was an oversight in communication between offices: "There was a huge gulf between the City Film Offices and the Corps in terms of knowledge of federal land management and rules."

Helldorado hopes to begin construction of the village September 15, though no permits have been issued. A second community meeting is planned, though a date has not yet been announced.

"I would love to just go to work and come home and ride my horses," says Baumann. "Now, my evenings are filled with meetings and phone calls. I wish the Army Corps would just do their job of protecting the flood control basin and protecting the environment there, so that we wouldn't have to."

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