Amigos De Bolsa Chica: A Film Not Just for the Birds

In the opening minutes of Amigos de Bolsa Chica, the stunning bird’s-eye images of the preserved local wetlands look almost too serene and untouched to be a part of Orange County: a tiny sliver of land, surrounded by suburban sprawl, where wildlife and nature flourish.

The green marshlands that lie next to Pacific Coast Highway in the northern part of Huntington Beach were never intended to be preserved. Yet thanks to the Amigos de Bolsa Chica, a group of environmentalists that banded together in 1976 to protest the construction of waterfront properties that would have destroyed 2,000 acres of coastal wetlands, the largest such expanse in North America.

Filmmaker Rita Baghdadi and Amigos de Bolsa Chica activist and teacher Joana Tavares-Reager eloquently capture how a group of ordinary citizens succeeded in carrying out an extraordinary mission to celebrate the Amigos’ 40th year of environmentalism. “The goal of our film is to ignite passion, enthusiasm, and the desire to do something positive for the environment,” says Tavares-Reager. “Anyone can succeed at improving the world as long as they put their minds and hearts into it.”

Huntington Beach’s allure in the late 1960s to early ’70s wasn’t only because of the surf—it offered an alternative to the overcrowded, smog-filled LA life. Although Huntington was beginning to blossom as a city, the area of Bolsa Chica was relatively undeveloped—and undiscovered. “We lived 1 mile from Bolsa Chica and had no idea it was even there,” says David Carlberg, president of Amigos de Bolsa Chica.

As Huntington Beach began to grow in population, the demand for open land became obvious—especially to Signal Oil, who was already using the wetlands for oil extraction. By the early ’70s Signal Oil presented the city with a major development plan, which set the Amigos in motion. “There was a need for preserving the wetlands and even improving it,” says founding member Margaret Carlberg. 

Showing clips of the 10-year legal battle between Signal Oil and the Amigos, the film illustrates the story of David and Golliath. “Their inspiring story of how they saved the wetlands is an opportunity to reflect upon the power of environmental advocacy through the portrait of real-life heroes,” says Tavares-Reager. 

Although the Amigos prevailed in the case against Signal Oil, the fight to restore the wetlands still persists. “What [the Amigos] didn’t know is that they would spend the next 40 years fighting to restore the Bolsa Chica,” Tavares-Reager says. In other words, it’s been the Amigos’ mission to help mend the damages done to the wetlands since their victory.

“The wetlands serve as an oasis to animals, plants and people who use this Ecological Reserve to escape from our overwhelmingly urbanized existence,” she says. “But most folks are completely unaware of the amount of effort, dedication and time that was required to save this special place from development.” 

The documentary will premiere this Friday, Feb. 26 at the Huntington Beach Library at 6 p.m. “Our hope is that this film can serve as inspiration for a new generation of environmentalists and social activists,” Tavares-Reager says, encouraging members of the community to stand up for our natural surroundings. “It’s very easy to get involved. There’s still much work to be done to protect the Bolsa Chica and the other few coastal ecosystems that remain in California.”

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