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The Marsh

Add a hunger strike and a developer-sponsored "wetlands observation deck" to the contention surrounding Playa Vista, the enormous coastal development planned for more than 1,000 acres of scrub and marsh on Los Angeles' Westside.

The hunger strike came by way of those opposed to the massive project, which would build over the Westside's largest remaining open space in exchange for partial wetlands restoration. Paul King, 25, ended his 15-day hunger strike this week, hoping he'd made a point about the plight of the animals whose homes are being destroyed by ongoing grading for the project. "If people see the animals suffer, they may or may not be concerned," said King. "But if people see a person suffer, they may get involved."

The observation deck, in stark contrast, came courtesy of those doing the grading - to demonstrate the developers' good faith in restoring part of the marsh.

At one level, the dueling events were volleys in the trench warfare over public opinion, between developers and their environmental allies on one side, and harder-line environmentalists who seek more expansive wetlands restoration. But something else is going on, too. Feuding believers are finding new avenues to express their cause, their commitment and, ultimately, themselves. And there's every reason to believe that there'll be plenty more such enigmatic expressions.

The more tangible contribution came from the developers, in the form of the observation deck, constructed of redwood - a threatened species - without any hint of irony. Last week, Marcus Clinco, an 18-year-old Eagle Scout and incoming college freshman, unveiled the observation deck, which he'd built with his father and friends to help celebrate the beauty of the wetlands' Ballona Creek - beauty, he says, that will best be preserved by construction of Playa Vista.

He makes the point based on the developers' pledge to set aside 340 acres of wetlands. And it was the developers, in fact, who supplied the materials for the deck - and the press releases that attracted an uncritical mini-media horde.

"I've grown up here in the Ballona Wetlands, and I love it today just as I did the first time I saw it," said Clinco, a native of Santa Monica. "Personally, I see Playa Vista as being wonderful for the wetlands."

That view was roundly seconded by David Herbst, vice president of corporate affairs at Playa Vista. "We have the power to save the wetlands," declared Herbst as the cameras clicked.

It was only about 500 yards across the marsh to the north that Paul King held a press conference, announcing the end to his hunger strike. King shared the scout's fervor for the wetlands, but couldn't reconcile this enthusiasm with the development's proposed dimensions, which include 29,000 residents, 20,000 office workers, 5 million square feet of office space, a marina, 1,200 hotel rooms and a film studio.

King had only lived in Los Angeles a year when he saw Ballona, but he was immediately inspired to gather signatures for CALPIRG (the California Public Interest Research Group) and the Sierra Club to muster opposition to the development. He doesn't want Ballona to prove a repeat of what happened to his boyhood home in Fort Worth.

"We lived on the outskirts of town, near the bottomlands of the Clear Fork of the Trinity River," King recalled. "I spent my time outdoors. I played there. It was full of deer, rabbits, armadillos, coyotes and lots of birds." His childhood Eden came to an end in 1984, he said, when developers razed the place to build a new subdivision.

At times during the fast at his roadside encampment, King faced hostility. One man drove by and shouted, "I hope you starve to death." Another day a car slowed, the window came down, and someone shouted "Eat a fucking hamburger!" and threw a burger at him.

But King connected with others. There was the doctor who stopped to tell him how to preserve his health as the fast progressed. Neighbors from nearby Playa del Rey vowed to more actively oppose the development. And residents on the Westchester bluffs above Ballona told him of seeing foxes, raccoons, rabbits and rats seeking refuge in their back yards as the grading destroyed the animals' lowland ground cover.

Now King is headed home to Fort Worth, satisfied that his religious convictions have been affirmed. "Creation is a gift," he said as the traffic hummed by and the 'dozers groaned in the background. "We are here to preserve that gift."