Absurd, unnecessary social engineering and possibly illegal environmental tactics — that's what some activists and politicians are calling the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' surprise destruction before Christmas of more than 40 acres of prime wildlife and vegetative habitat five miles north of the Getty Center in the Sepulveda Dam Basin.
Facing increasing criticism for bulldozing a cherished bird habitat and wetlands ecosystem spanning 40 football fields — in a city where most wetlands were long ago destroyed — Corps officials insisted the federal flood-control agency had no choice, in part because cruising gay men and homeless campers had flocked there and endangered the public.
That rationale is news to West Valley Division Los Angeles Police Department Lt. Anne-Marie Fuller, who for six months has overseen vice patrols in Sepulveda Basin in Encino. Fuller tells L.A. Weekly she's unaware of homeless or lewd-behavior problems beyond those commonly seen in parks and woods patrolled by LAPD. “It sounds kind of strange,” Fuller says, adding she'd “never heard anything” about a mounting threat to public safety.
LAPD says it may have a pending investigation in the area. Meanwhile, Deputy City Attorney Raffy Astvasadoorian says he has prosecuted only seven minor cases there, for misdemeanor illegal camping, with most fines set at just $100. Corps spokesman Dave Palmer insisted to the Weekly that the complaints it got from law enforcement were “verbal,” including from the LAPD and from the City Attorney's Office — but Astvasadoorian denies that city attorneys complained.
Now, state Sen. Kevin de Leon is demanding that the Corps make public its records of law-enforcement complaints about gays and the homeless, as well as a full accounting of which officials decided to destroy the habitat and why.
Corps Col. Mark Toy approved the project, which his aides defended as necessary to protect the dam and to remove non-native plants. But of the Corps' claim of a worsening threat from gays and homeless campers, de Leon says: “It's silly.”
State Sen. Fran Pavley, a well-regarded environmentalist, says she will ask California Attorney General Kamala Harris to jump into the debacle if Toy, the top local boss, adopts an attitude that the feds have the “right” to do as they please.
The devastation is great to the uplands and wetlands near the 101/405 intersection, bounded on the west by the Los Angeles River, which meanders through the Sepulveda Basin before becoming a cement channel.
Pavley asks, “Was it a mistake? I want to hear the tone and reaction to what has happened, to see if this is just a bad mistake that they wish could be done over — or whether they will defend it as their right.”
Nobody has apologized yet. Corps officials said Toy was on vacation and couldn't respond to the controversy, which erupted Dec. 24 on Encino-Tarzana Patch.com.
But de Leon says, “If they had a public-safety problem in Central Park in New York, Griffith Park, Golden Gate Park or Balboa Park in San Diego, you'd never hear of them eviscerating 40 acres. … It's absurd. That problem is everywhere. But you don't hear of folks plowing through sensitive habitat that's home to different species of birds and a fragile ecosystem.”
The area had for three decades attracted warblers, hawks, falcons, swifts and myriad other birds who nest and feed in thickets of willows, Fremont cottonwoods, box elders, Mexican elderberries and native shrubs.
That's all gone.
“I think it's homophobic at the very least,” says Lewis MacAdams, president of Friends of the Los Angeles River. “It's nature-phobic. It's like they're taking revenge for this [woodlands and wetland habitat] growing up.”
Muriel Kotin, youth activities chairwoman of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society, called the Corps' claim that public safety needed to be restored “unconscionable.”
In early December, Kotin came across Toy's new “vegetation management” plan, which had been quietly posted on the Army Corps of Engineers' website without any public meetings. So Kotin contacted the Corps on behalf of the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Areas Steering Committee, a group of nature experts and enthusiasts.
Corps officials told the steering committee not to worry.
Deborah Lamb, a landscape architect who helped Toy create the vegetation-removal plan, wrote to Kotin on Dec. 12 that the Corps would follow federal policy supporting dam “structural integrity” and would “reduce crime … by making the area more visible to LAPD patrolling.” One key goal, Lamb wrote to Kotin, was to eliminate “hiding places for lewd activity and homeless camps.”
The Sepulveda Basin and nearby Woodley Park received four out of five stars on the website cruisinggays.com.
However, Kris Ohlenkamp, of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society, who discovered the carnage on Dec. 22 during the society's annual bird count, says his group was never provided statistics suggesting that gay cruising, homeless camping or other crimes were causing a crisis.
Lamb on Dec. 12 assured the citizen committee, “Nothing is going to be implemented quickly due to funding resources and labor resources.” And the official plan declared “no significant impact” on the ecosystem.
Now, the Corps is admitting that, on Dec. 10, heavy equipment had already begun ripping into the growth and nature paths.
Because Toy and other federal officials failed to hold a public meeting or to attempt any outreach regarding their real intentions, none of the hundreds of people who have volunteered over the decades, slowly creating the ecosystem, had a chance to challenge the Corps under federal environmental protection laws.
Bizarrely, the Corps destroyed some vegetation it planted as early as the late 1970s, when taxpayers footed the bill for restoration. Now taxpayers are likely to pay twice more — once for the bulldozing bill and again if the ruined ecosystem is restored.
When a Weekly reporter visited a few days ago, even public paths and decorative markers installed near a pedestrian bridge across a small stream had been shattered by earth movers.
“What's very troubling is that this speaks to a larger issue as we try to bring the Los Angeles River [restoration project] to fruition, because [the Army Corps] has partial jurisdiction,” de Leon says. “I'm very concerned, because they have a penchant for running over local interests — all over the country.” What they did in L.A., De Leon says, “is very symbolic.”
Ohlenkamp, of the Audubon Society, says Corps officials are “definitely saying the primary purpose of what they've done is 'public safety.' … They say the ends justify the means. The 'ends' are a clear, open space where the police can see forever and the Corps can see forever, and there will no longer be people wandering through the bushes.”
A statement from Corps Operations Branch chief Tomas Beauchamp-Hernandez claims that the Corps received public-safety complaints from the city of L.A.'s obscure Office of Public Safety within the Department of General Services, which until Jan. 1 had law enforcement responsibility for the Sepulveda Dam Basin area. Los Angeles General Services chief Tony Royster did not return the Weekly's calls.
Beauchamp-Hernandez also claimed that someone from the L.A. City Council complained of safety problems, which he described as a “paramount” Corps issue. The city councilman for that area, Tony Cardenas, just joined the U.S. Congress and did not return calls from the Weekly.
Already, some homeless people have merely shifted north into the wooded, 180-acre Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Area leased from the Corps by the L.A. Parks Department. There, a fresh homeless camp has risen right across from the clearcut area.
Sen. Pavley warned that the Corps' credibility is now at stake because the federal agency — part of the U.S. Army — is involved in environmental and waterway projects throughout California.
But Corps spokesman Jay Field downplayed the debacle, as have others. They have said their real error was in failing to fully inform the public of the coming destruction, and not the destruction itself.
“Hindsight is 20-20, and perhaps as in any endeavor one can do better,” Field said in a statement.