Cut the Mustard

In the days after a 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.


LaBonge claims Griffith Park had its own biologist before Proposition 13 was approved by voters in 1978, the property-tax relief initiative that reduced funding for such things as park services. “Warren somebody, his name was,” he says. “But he retired in 1978.” He promised to dig up his number, but then admitted later that “the guy might not still be around.”

These days, the closest anyone can get to an authority on Griffith Park’s ecosystem is a landscape architect named Rick Fisher with the city’s Recreation and Parks Department. As a city employee, however, Fisher has been instructed that he can’t speak to the press without the permission of Rec and Parks’ public information officer — who nearly two weeks after the fire had not returned the Weekly’s phone calls.

Never was the absence of a Griffith Park authority more evident than in the wake of the fire, when media leaned on three experts who all currently reside in other ecosystems: the University of Riverside’s Richard Minnich, who mostly documents fire in the mountains and desert to the east; Richard Halsey of the California Chaparral Institute, which advocates for the health of the entire state's chaparral; and the USGS’s Jon Keeley, who specializes in coniferous (pine) forests.

When Keeley corrected LaBonge about the mustard on the radio, the councilman proved well armed to take him down: “Have you ever hiked the park in your life?” he righteously demanded. Keeley admitted that he had only ridden through the park on horseback, and LaBonge retained his authority.

As well as LaBonge knows the park’s trails, landmarks and planted gardens, however, he does not seem to grasp what it represents as a wilderness.

Although the Los Angeles County Fire Department explains in its pre-fire management plan that “fire is a necessary part of the natural life cycle of the chaparral ecosystem in Los Angeles County,” LaBonge regards it as an aberration. “It’s a huge tragedy because now you have to live through a decade or more of extreme makeover,” he said, alternately reciting fragments of James Taylor’s “Up on the Roof” and lesser-known verses of “This Land Is Your Land” to explain how people in Los Angeles feel about the park. “I wish this fire never would have happened, and I don’t accept that it’s a natural part of the process.”

LaBonge also didn’t know that his beloved mustard is not only a non-native invasive weed, but a “ladder fuel” — it actually helps fire burn hotter and spread faster than it would among ordinary native chaparral.

In some sense, the problem with the Griffith Park ecosystem lies in the way Angelenos, like LaBonge, have come to think about fire: As a necessarily catastrophic force to be avoided at all costs.

But if you want to observe nature at work — if you want to have wilderness at all — you have to accept fire as a part of its process. And as accidental chaparral fires go, the Griffith Park fire was one of the better ones: No one died, only the now-legendary man who fell asleep with his cigarette was injured and not a single house was lost. As evidenced by the throngs of people who lined the streets of Los Feliz, beverages in hand, to watch it blow up, humans, truth be told, enjoyed it.

“Fire is a powerful, interesting force like lightning or hailstorms,” says Stephen Packard, a biologist with Chicago Audubon Society who helps tend Chicago’s metropolitan wilderness. If a fire starts in ideal weather conditions and stays within safe limits, “fire is a fascinating component of a natural ecosystem.”

And in fact, in many sensible, well-funded urban wilderness areas, park managers actually set fires. “We have celebrations around them,” Packard says. “The fires are interpreted for the press, and people are invited and trained as volunteers to control and study them. We’ve never had injury or property damage because of them.” Recognizing that the Southern California ecosystem differs significantly from Chicago’s, Packard still argues that “if someone put their mind to it,” they could make what are known as “prescribed burns” safe in California. “It seems like something your governor could get behind,” he says. “The green part and the macho part.”

The Los Angeles County Fire Department still stages prescribed burns on county parklands (so far, though, without throwing a party), to clear out dangerous buildup of fire fuel as well as encourage native plant species in places such as the county-managed Kenneth Hahn Recreation Area in the Baldwin Hills.


“The weather has to be just right and the equipment has to be available,” says county fire Captain Ron Haralson. “But it’s an effective strategy.”

But the city of Los Angeles has not done prescribed burns in more than a decade. “We’ve had good success with brush clearance around structures,” says Tim Kerbrat, battalion chief for the Los Angeles Fire Department. As far as promoting native species, Kerbrat says it’s a matter of “weighing what’s natural against what’s safe. I’m not saying we’d never do it. But right now we’re not set up for that.”

In the meantime, various ideas for restoring the scorched parts of Griffith Park have been floated, from reseeding landslide-prone hillsides to shoring them up with hay bales and straw; a petition has even been circulated to introduce goats for future fire prevention in the rest of the park. (“How hungry are they?” Kerbrat wants to know. “Because we need these hillsides cleared out now.”) Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger a few days ago promised to earmark a whopping $50 million for Griffith Park restoration, from recently passed bond measures — a sum that could pay a legion of park biologists for years.

The city’s Recreation and Parks Department is assembling a committee of experts to guide decision making, but not everyone has faith the department has the resources to do the job right, in a city that is often described as the most “park poor” major city in America.

“We don’t want a repeat of the Master Plan process, where they hired people with no experience in preparing master plans for municipal parks,” says Joe Young, the co-chair of the Sierra Club’s Griffith Park Task Force. “The issues of revegetation, replanting and prevention of soil erosion should be addressed by competent outside independent analysts. They shouldn’t be Rec and Parks’ hand-picked favorites.”

Ultimately, however, unless local homeowner, environmental and neighborhood groups shoulder their way into the decision making, the reseeding and regreening of Griffith Park could easily devolve into an insider political process, controlled by City Hall politicians who are probably not even aware that Chicago, New York and other big cities pay extremely close attention to the wild lands within their borders — while Los Angeles lacks even a single Griffith Park biologist.

Cooper says that while he has no objection to officials putting in certain kinds of landscaping such as “a succulents garden on a vista point,” he hopes that Recreation and Parks finally finds some “experts” who perhaps understand that after a burn, chaparral landscapes perform spectacular restorative feats all on their own.

“We’ve got this thing in our head about how we need to turn every park in the country into Yosemite,” he says — that we’ve “got to plant pines, plant redwoods, build a stream. But you have to appreciate the extremes we have here. In its own way, this park is valuable.”

Images from Tom LaBonge's May 25 hike up the Mt. Hollywood trail with LA Weekly photographer Rena Kosnett

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