If rivers were captured and put in zoos, that would be the fate of two wild waters that once ran through greater Los Angeles. Thousands of years before the era of asphalt, the Rio Hondo and the San Gabriel flowed from the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and Angeles Forest to the Pacific. Today, to prevent flooding of thousands of homes, the rivers are channeled, encased by concrete and at the center of the fight over whether you must pave nature to save nature.

Proponents of the San Gabriel River Discovery Center, a facility proposed for the Whittier Narrows Natural Area where two waterways fed by the rivers converge, say it would provide an educational experience that encourages the public to reduce water pollution, increase water conservation and enable restoration of degraded nearby habitat.

Opponents say that the center and its proposed 116-space parking lot would be only the latest incursion of man in sensitive riparian habitat, and would replace an existing facility with an expensive and unnecessary alternative.

The San Gabriel Valley intergovernmental agency with authority over the project approved it on January 20 and was sued by a group of environmentalists and those who are happy with the site's existing center, who allege that the environmental-impact report issued for the project is inadequate.

While proponents from the government agencies involved and the proposed center's opponents agree that the footprint of the new building roughly matches the space taken by the existing center and enclave of outbuildings, the parking lot would pave over open space. Attorney Frank P. Angel, who represents Friends of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area in the lawsuit against the authority, termed the plan “ironic” — for a facility peddling environmental awareness.

Shepherded by a group of unwieldy bureaucracies that include two water districts, the San Gabriel & Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountain Conservancy and the County of Los Angeles, the San Gabriel River Discovery Center is designed to replace the aging 2,000-square-foot Whittier Narrows Nature Center, buildings including a garage, and “non-native landscaping” with a 14,000-square-foot museum of interactive exhibits for children that would explain the existing state of the watershed, show what the natural rivers were once like and feature a covered, outdoor classroom.

“You're going to bring awareness of the sense of place where the kids sense that they're part of something much bigger,” declares Sam Pedroza as he reels off interconnections between man, river and sea. “Everything that we do from the mountains and the inland cities affects the ocean. It's as small as throwing a wrapper in the street or in the parking lot — that can all end up in the ocean.”

Pedroza, a Claremont city councilman, chairs the San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority's Stakeholders Committee. “I know that we look like the Goliath here,” he tells the Weekly, but “by every definition this is an environmental project that's aimed at protecting the watershed.”

Others aren't so sure.

Teresa Young, who studies insects in habitats near the existing nature center, shares Pedroza's concern for the remaining open space. But she does not agree that the construction of a large building and parking lot somehow improves the environment.

“It's the only green natural area for miles. Why should we [remove] an inch?” Young says.

A member of the Whittier Narrows Nature Center Associates and a fierce opponent of the proposed new facility, Young recently surveyed the area by helicopter — a greenbelt in the midst of several bustling, polluted inland cities including Montebello and Pico Rivera. The 320-acre wildlife sanctuary, part of a flood basin of 1,400 acres owned by the Army Corps of Engineers and leased by the county as recreational land for the public, is “like an island,” says Young.

She names a host of insects that make the grounds their home and are an important food source for the birds drawn to the sanctuary.

Young is dismissive of proponents citing interactive exhibits for children as a key selling point, saying their plan is not really motivated by a desire to promote “environmental education” — a subject that children in Southern California are immersed in at school. The real intent, she believes, is to build a fancy new building that is “a place for the water boards to meet.”

“There are a number of people who think it is not a good idea — but they are not listened to,” Young says.

Among them is 17-year-old high school student Laura Sermeno. Her experience as a volunteer at the aging but usable Whittier Narrows Center has inspired her to consider environmental studies in college.

Sermeno believes that existing public classrooms (South El Monte High School is across the street from the wildlife area) are a better locale for the proposed center's activities. She envisions a pedestrian bridge drawing students across the street to see the rivers they learn about in class.

“What they are proposing is artificial habitat,” says Sermeno.

Pedroza discounts Sermeno's idea as unworkable, and points to an extensive process, which he says began in the 1990s, for selecting the best site for a new center. During this process, the proposed center's scope was reduced from 18,000 to 14,000 square feet and the parking lot from 150 to 116 spaces.

But the 1990s were different times, before a serious effort took hold in California to remove some longtime dams and return river areas to their wild beauty, and before a statewide debate erupted over decommercializing Yosemite National Park. The once-inoffensive idea of erecting “educational” buildings with parking lots on rare green space has lost much of its luster.

The San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority's executive director, Belinda V. Faustinos, who also serves as the executive officer of the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, says the Discovery Center would arise on “already disturbed” land, and that money flowing to the new center would also be used for “enhancing the grounds around the site.”

Yet Faustinos concedes that, in fact, that funding — including some of the construction money — has not been secured. The Discovery Center Authority does not even have an updated estimate of future operating costs.

Cheryl Swift, a professor who teaches conservation biology at Whittier College, serves on the committee that advises county officials on the region's sensitive habitat. That committee found that the envisioned center is “incompatible” with a sensitive ecological area.

“I'm always uncomfortable when someone says, 'We're going to footprint this much of open space, and we're going to “fix” the rest of it,'” says Swift. “At the end of the day, it's open space — and we just don't have a lot of it left. Nature shouldn't be Disneyland. Nature should be nature.”

Ultimately, however, the gorilla in the room is not about environmental ethics but about money.

“What comes to me is that it's easy to build something [but] it's hard to sustain the operation,” says Michael Feeney, executive director of the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, a nonprofit that owns and protects 22,000 acres of open space.

Feeney points to the experience of Santa Barbara's Community Environmental Council, which constructed the Watershed Resource Center at a county beach, but no longer owns it.

“Everyone was excited to build it and there was a lot of enthusiasm at first,” he says. But the officials at the various agencies grew reluctant to devote the funds needed to keep it going. According to Feeney, the resource center is largely shuttered now, though not only for financial reasons.

Like Sermeno, he believes that the actual experience of the outdoors is more compelling than any exhibit. “Everyone goes to the beach to go to the beach,” he notes. “They don't go to go inside a building.” 

LA Weekly