Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve is among the last of scores of tidal wetlands that once graced Los Angeles County. Its 640 surviving acres are owned by the people, thanks to scores of environmentalists including Rex Frankel, Susan Suntree, Marcia Hanscom and Bruce Robertson, who years ago fought to curtail development there.

Now, a plan by heiress Wallis Annenberg to erect a massive, 46,000-square-foot visitor center for “appreciating” the ecosystem, including a facility for adopting pets, is ballooning into an ugly war of words.

The plan was secretly reached between the heiress, her $1.6 billion Annenberg Foundation and state and local officials after she unsuccessfully pushed for a nearly identical, 51,000-square-foot visitor center/pet adoption facility on stunning, public coastal land in Rancho Palos Verdes.

See also: Wallis Annenberg's Controversial Visitor Center at Ballona Wetlands: Money Matters

That plan died in 2011 amidst intense opposition. Just eight weeks later, in October 2011, Wallis Annenberg's group approached the obscure Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission — a body dominated by government officials — and, over the next 15 months, in closed-door meetings, worked out a near–carbon copy of her plan for Rancho Palos Verdes: a visitor center/pet adoption facility, this time on public land in the Ballona Wetlands reserve.

The secret meetings did not include the top environmental groups most responsible for saving large chunks of the rare Ballona Wetlands from Playa Vista developer Playa Capital a decade ago: the 100-group coalition then known as Citizens United to Save All of Ballona, the Wetlands Action Network and the influential Southwest Center for Biological Diversity.

In January, the surprise plan was unveiled as a “memorandum of understanding” in which the California Department of Fish and Wildlife would allow Annenberg to erect her project in exchange for millions of dollars from her wealthy foundation to restore the human-degraded wetlands.

To the apparent shock of the foundation, which insists its plan isn't controversial, criticism has dogged it ever since.

Days ago, Annenberg Foundation executive director Leonard Aube lashed out at Ballona Institute, whose leaders, Marcia Hanscom and Roy van de Hoek, played prominent roles in the Wetlands Action Network's pitched battle for Ballona against developer Playa Capital about a decade ago.

“You mentioned 'Ballona Institute' — that's not a constituency, that's a person,” Aube told L.A. Weekly, referring to Hanscom. “Ballona Institute is an insolvent nonprofit,” he alleged. “Ballona Institute, frankly, the best that I know, lost their IRS nonprofit designation several years ago.”

Clearly, criticism of Wallis Annenberg's plan to build her project on Area C of the Ballona Wetlands has the wealthy foundation on the defensive.

Hanscom angrily responded to Aube's jibe at her in an email to the Weekly: “It really is shocking that Leonard Aube, the executive director of a foundation like Annenberg that is supposed to be SUPPORTIVE of nonprofit organizations, would make an unfair and inaccurate charge about our organization being 'insolvent'!”

In fact, Ballona Institute is an active nonprofit, according to the California Secretary of State. It has a highly involved board and hundreds of volunteers. “We are in solid financial shape and just got a grant from DWP to educate people on water conservation,” Hanscom adds.

In the late 1990s, thousands of people joined Hanscom and other environmental activists to stop Playa Capital from marching its luxury apartments to the edge of the fragile wetlands. The huge coalition stepped in after the so-called Friends of Ballona Wetlands, in its bid to save part of the wetlands, capitulated to developer Playa Capital. Friends of Ballona Wetlands signed a legal settlement in which it agreed to never criticize Playa Capital or a series of controversial “restoration plans” that sought to bulldoze and remake the wetlands.

Citizens United to Save All of Ballona and Wetlands Action Network drew up to 1,000 cheering people to rallies to stop Playa Capital, which later built the greatly scaled-down Playa Vista.

In 2003 the Legislature took note of the intense opposition, setting aside $25 million to help save much of the wetlands, including 70-acre Area C, where Playa Capital held an option to buy the land from the state. Area C is an “uplands” — a buffer zone that protects marshes from human impact. Although degraded by man, Area C is home to many birds, mammals — and baseball fields.

Annenberg's plan comes in an era when “interpretive centers” in nature and open spaces are going out of vogue.

At the Whittier Narrows Wildlife Sanctuary next to the San Gabriel River, official plans to erect a “discovery center” — so people could appreciate the setting just outside — have been delayed more than five years by intense opposition. The New York Times, in an article headlined “Traditional Visitor Centers May Fade,” explained that people now can turn to virtual tours instead of intrusive buildings.

Wallis Annenberg had told Vanity Fair in 2009, of her 51,000-square-foot center in Rancho Palos Verdes: “I want to do the Mayo Clinic for companion animals. The idea is to teach people a reverence for animals and to tie it in to the local ecology and environment.”

Within weeks of her August 2011 defeat in Rancho Palos Verdes, Annenberg quietly turned her sights on the Ballona preserve, and that October, Annenberg Foundation launched quiet talks with the little-known Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission.

In January, without a single public hearing, four parties — Annenberg, Fish and Wildlife, the state Coastal Conservancy and the bay commission — signed the memorandum of understanding that envisions a dramatically altered “restoration” of Ballona. It would turn Area C-South into a busy, visitor-oriented park with an interpretive center, animal shelter, hiking trails, boardwalks, recreation area and signage.

Aube says, “The hope is the building disappears into the landscape because of its green roofs,” which will be planted.

The building is designed for crowds, with a large lobby, auditorium for 200, “live animal” demonstration program and pet-adoption facility steeped in Wallis Annenberg's concept of responsible ownership. (The shelter won't accept strays from the public.)

Critics are outraged at placing an “animal adoption component” in an area dedicated to wooing back natural marine life and upland birds, reptiles and other critters.

USC professor Travis Longcore, an expert on environmental management who has researched Ballona Wetlands for years, ridicules Annenberg's proposal as a “classic developer's technique to convince people it's good for the environment.”

Longcore, who is president of Audubon Society's Los Angeles chapter, says the center will threaten the delicate ecosystem's endangered species, such as the California gnatcatcher, and also encroach on open space and increase human activity.

“This is an ecological reserve, not a state park,” Longcore says.

Walter Lamb, president of Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, says his group opposes the project, noting that it would require a rewrite of state rules “to accommodate the wishes of Wallis Annenberg.”

“It's ridiculous,” Hanscom says. “The center will completely alter the habitat for endangered species.”

Annenberg Foundation has promised Fish and Wildlife millions of dollars to bulldoze non-native plants that make up about 90 percent of the flora, then plant native vegetation, according to Aube.

Bulldozing was used to “restore” Malibu Lagoon, leading to a bitter war that divided Malibu residents and environmental groups. Last year, the state destroyed the thriving wetlands adjacent to the lagoon, heavily reshaping the land — purportedly to improve the water quality and marine life.

It will be years before it's known which side was right in Malibu.

Annenberg's Aube promises, “Temporarily when you move dirt around, when you have heavy equipment and people on the site, yes, temporarily, things are disturbed. We set conditions, things will come back.”

But Longcore says of Annenberg's land-grading plan, “The first rule of restoration is 'Do no harm.' If you bulldoze all of the area and start over with a clean slate, with no attention being paid to the insects and plants at the habitat … that doesn't even scratch the surface of problems it causes.”

Longcore says Fish and Wildlife’s quiet acquiescence to Wallis Annenberg was motivated by her riches: “The cash-strapped state agency wants Annenberg Foundation to pay them to help fund the restoration project.”

Area C, the uplands buffer zone eyed by Annenberg, has inarguably been degraded from its natural state of 100 years ago, as has the wetlands. The Culver Marina Little League, which has 23 teams, has used the fields for about 50 years, according to John Buckley, Little League vice president.

In an email, he said his group supports Annenberg's proposal, particularly “having much-needed upgrades made to the fields.” He also likes the idea of the visitor center: “I have two children in elementary school and middle school. … Anything we can do to provide educational opportunities for these kids is something I support.”

Friends of Ballona were disparaged for years for giving up too much rare land to developers, and for agreeing not to criticize Playa Capital. Now it's being cautious.

“The problem is, people have to be black-and-white,” says Friends of Ballona Wetlands executive director Lisa Fimiani. “It's not fair to Annenberg Foundation. It's not fair to our organization.”

She insists Annenberg brings “tremendous opportunities to improve the wetlands,” adding, “The devil will be in the details” of an upcoming Environmental Impact Report.

Note: Fifth paragraph has been corrected to reflect the name of the 100-group coalition, which was called Citizens United to Save All of Ballona.

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