Heiress Wallis Annenberg's stunning abandonment of her dream to build a large, widely ridiculed visitor “appreciation” center on the protected Ballona Wetlands has buoyed environmental groups trying to protect its hundreds of acres of meadows, seasonal creeks and thriving brackish saltwater on the Westside. Now let the really ugly stuff begin.
Environmentalists plan to descend today on a Van Nuys meeting of the California Fish and Game Commission, a powerful political body within the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. That department's secrecy in meeting with the wealthy heiress and her team to quietly cobble together a plan to develop the fragile wetlands enraged transparency advocates and put into question Gov. Jerry Brown's pledges to save rare open space.
“I felt certain Wallis would pull out of this terrible plan because it wasn't going her way — she wanted that building to go up fast, and the development of the wetlands to happen fast, and I can tell you that the government bureaucrats who loved her plan for the wetlands, and her money, don't do anything fast,” said environmental leader Marcia Hanscom.
In the 1990s, Hanscom and about 40 other key environmental leaders including Rex Frankel, Bruce Robertson, Patricia McPherson, Sabrina Venskus and Kathy Knight, formed a coalition of 100 community and environmental groups, which saved 640 acres of coastal wetland, an important surviving remnant of the county's once-healthy ecosystem of ocean coastal wetlands.
Their war to save a rare L.A. wetland not destroyed by man drew crowds of 1,000 people, and in the early 2000s they beat back the Playa Vista developers and a group calling itself the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands. The state took stewardship of the land.
Their victory was supposed to have forever protected the ecosystem, which teems with life and which biologists say is important to the health of the ocean.
But then Wallis Annenberg came along.
She and her growing team of PR experts and lobbyists secretly negotiated with state and local officials and her foundation offered to spend tens of millions of dollars from the Annenberg fortune — her father's, thanks to such wildly successful ventures as TV Guide.
Her idea was to create a large visitor center, walkways and signs throughout the fragile wetlands, which are now cordoned off and slowly recovering from past abuses.
Interestingly, Wallis Annenberg's plan was almost identical to her idea, rejected by local officials several miles south of Ballona Wetlands on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, where she wanted to erect a large visitor center on their public open lands.
Among other things, the Annenberg name was to be prominently posted within the Ballona Wetlands, once her development was in place.
A series of state and local officials got in line behind Annenberg, happy to have her money and defending her idea as compatible with the land. At times it seemed as if the public officials had forgotten the passion and fury that saved the wetlands in the first place.
Among other things, state officials were unprepared for the intensive work launched by environmentalists to obtain secret documents and records of closed-door meetings between Annenberg's team and public officials, using the California Public Records Act.
Patricia McPherson, one of the original 40 or so environmentalists who cobbled together the countywide coalition that saved about 600 acres in the early 2000s, obtained reams of public documents involving Annenberg that had not been made public. McPherson had this to say in a statement released just moments ago:
“The beat goes on to protect Ballona from the state's plan to dig out and destroy the endangered habitat, converting it instead into a catch basin that would drain off the freshwater aquifers and pull in a full tidal flow. The ramifications of this Annenberg withdrawal should also help shed light on the squandering of millions of public dollars provided already for Ballona's restoration.”
“We will be present today at the Fish and Game Commission Meeting this morning in the San Fernando Valley area. We will discuss process and California Department of Fish and Wildlife's willful negligence in protecting this precious and unique place.”
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State officials could not be reached for comment.