All But the Suits are on Board for Big-T Wash Rehab

MAILANDER’S LA - The land has not healed.  The water does not flow.  The bureaucrats have few maps.  The politicians have few plans.  And the people have little patience. 

Four years ago last Monday, the first flames that became the shocking local cataclysm known as The Station Fire began to spread from a ranger station near the Angeles Crest Highway.  Over the next fifty days, the fire consumed 160,000 acres in the Angeles National Forest, including the rugged terrain immediately north of the City of LA's northeastern borders through which the Big Tujunga Wash passes. 

To meet the needs of the confluence of our northern boundary's watershed flows, a confluence of governmental agencies will be obliged to work together to shepherd any plan to rehabilitate the Big Tujunga Wash and adjacent areas from the Station Fire's impact.  But as for specific plans, four years after the flames were tamed, there is still no particular course of action planned for any of the restoration tasks: weeding the Wash of invasive flora, ridding the Wash of its problem homeless encampments, or restoring the wash to the kind of status that may both honor its legacy in memory and anticipate the hopes of future environmental conservationists and nature lovers. 

Environmental historian and Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College Char Miller noted in a column at KCET's website last week the impact of the Station Fire on the Wash.

"Particularly hard hit were riparian and terrestrial ecosystems within the upper reaches of the Los Angeles River," Miller noted in his comprehensive piece, "including those in Big Tujunga Canyon. Depending on the location within the 97,000-acre canyon, the Station Fire charred upwards of 95% of the subwatershed's vegetation." 

Miller is the kind of prof who, while often shaping academic and historical work into advocacy, nonetheless can look on any and all bureaucratic outcomes with fascination and always has ears on alert for bureaucratic buzz.  He tells me of a revelatory moment in a two-part series of interviews with U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell in which he first hears the term "restoring to the future" and presses Tidwell for further explanation and whether or not we can restore in a way that includes enough resiliency to anticipate a future we cannot predict. 

"What does it mean to reshape river flows?" Miller asks me.  He tells me that pioneering reshaping projects are going on in New Hampshire and Idaho, and are "at the heart of what we need to be doing" in the case of our Wash. 

While the Forest Service and the County's Department of Public Works--which likes to call the area "Big-T"--grab reins and try to plot a future course for the region, the local pols are not sure what's going on regarding planning for the future in their own bailiwicks.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich's office even felt a need to scapegoat.  Answering CityWatch's inquiry regarding the future, the office issued a hasty, error-riddled statement that said almost nothing and pointed fingers in ambiguous directions.

"The Supervisor and his office are supportive of the efforts of the National Forest Foundation and their willingness to work with the community and other non-governmental entities to ensure that the money is allocated on projects that provide the greatest benefit," Antonovich field deputy Jarrod DeGonia wrote me in an email. "However, the Supervisor would remind the NFF, and its parent organization, the National Forest Service [sic--he may mean the U.S. Forest Service], that had they worked with local entities before and during the Station Fire, the money may not have been needed to offset the damage of the Station Fire." 

Nobody in Supervisor Antonovich's office responded to CityWatch's request to identify specifically which "local entities" that the U.S. Forest Service failed to work with "before and during the Station Fire," nor did they identify the kind of work that might have been better accomplished. 

This is "a seemingly direct answer that seemingly implies much but which when parsed says little," one environmental activist told me. 

Councilman Felipe Fuentes' office, new to the territory, fared even worse.  They would not even respond to CityWatch's inquiries on whether or not any City policy towards rehabilitating the City's section of the Wash is on the drawing board. Also, a constituent reported that the office told her they'd have to get back to her on the matter.  While most of the Wash is outside of the City, the watershed impacts the City's water supply; this is not news to the City but it hasn't had much of a role in rehabilitation planning to-date. 

Professor Miller thinks a $5 million campaign to jumpstart to rehabilitation might bring a better future to the Wash.  But the political planning paralysis in the face of the sheer immensity of the undertaking is frustrating to local activists.

"Ecological restoration is a lot of work," Roger Klemm says. "The alternative, though, is our wild lands full of weeds, which makes for a longer and even more dangerous fire season, and no wildlife. Invasive exotic plants provide pretty much no food or homes for critters." 

Klemm, a spacecraft software engineer who's passionate about native plants, has done native landscaping for upwards of 20 years.  He has spearheaded the renovation of two community gardens with native plants and some 'guerrilla gardening' as well.

"I have participated in Broom Bash outings with the USFS botanist and her crew, eradicating Spanish Broom from select locations in the Angeles National Forest," Klemm told me through messaging. "They don't yet have the approval to use herbicides, so we go in with weed wrenches and rip the plants out. Hard labor, but where they've been, the natives are filling in nicely."

"From a horticultural point of view, the removal of invasives is on target if only because they must be gone before installing natives which should be planted in the early fall," Terre Ashmore, another ecological renovator with long standing ties to the Wash, told me.  "The sediment removal is an agony to the forest ( I can practically hear her groans of distress) yet must be done to operate the dam again and restore water."

Hard labor and lots of it is what is required to make the Wash into something that might honor its legacy and also prove serviceable to future nature lovers. Activists are standing by. The will among the citizens to perform is there; but the roadmap to the future is still not precise, and one detects the politicians who represent the areas impacted by the Wash are missing a grand opportunity.


(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs here.)






Vol 11 Issue 70

Pub: Aug 30, 2013