You sign the young college student's Greenpeace membership form or admire the Surfrider sticker next to the Sublime sticker on the Scion at the stop light or get teary over kids barely old enough to vote cheering as the end credits of An Inconvenient Truth roll. Yes, you tell yourself, today's youth is down with protecting the environment.
Then reality hits you in the face like polluted ice water.
One could not be blamed for assuming the unassuming white-, gray- and bluehairs ambling into a Huntington Beach Central Library conference room one warm night this past October had mistaken the Bolsa Chica Land Trust Town Hall meeting for an AARP recruitment session or an explanation of Bush's new prescription drug plan or A Very Special Evening With Larry King . .. Barely Live.
And then you sit through the entire deal and it hits you: the forces battling greedy, narrow interests hellbent on profiting off the exploitation of a natural coastal resource benefiting all are not only old, they, too, are protecting a narrow interest:
Yes, after plowing through the meat of the meeting—which detailed where things stand when it comes to development of the land just above the now-federally protected wetlands—the remainder of the night was devoted to ogling photos of birds who feed, mate and nest at Bolsa Chica. The pictures were quite striking, and the revelation that some species captured on film were endangered or not generally known to haunt these parts makes the Land Trust's efforts more critical. But the way the crowd of grandparents snapped awake to this portion of the program and oohed and ahhed each slide that popped up . . . well, it got kinda creepy, like this was bird porn or something.
And it made you wonder: Are these polite folks truly interested in saving the upper wetlands for the sake of mankind and Ma Ocean, or do they just want to protect and lord over what would become a multimillion-dollar, taxpayer-supported bird sanctuary for them, a few U.S. Fish and Game officers and, of course, critters (feathered and otherwise)?
Ages ago, when rampant development had not yet choked the coast, the Bolsa Chica wetlands naturally filtered inland water and gunk that washed toward the shore as well as ocean water and gunk that washed inland. Urbanization and decades of neglect crippled that important function. Just before the turn of the 20th century, the Bolsa Chica Gun Club dammed up the wetlands to create a fresh-water pond that would attract waterfowl they could blast like so many Dick Cheney hunting partners. Further “improvements” to the ecosystem over the next 100 years included oil wells, a flood control channel and encroaching development. The wetlands got backed up and filled in so much, one of the countless hucksters who routinely blow into Huntington Beach proposed a few decades ago that Bolsa Chica would be the perfect spot for a multimillion-dollar marina. Like everything else hucksters propose in and around Huntington Beach, that harebrained idea got official backing before it was finally, mercifully shot down. The compromise: pave over the wetlands to allow a massive residential community.
Years of resistance mounted by environmentalists eventually led to a deal that would allow the land owner (and there have been several) to leverage restoration of the lower wetlands for permission to build on the upper wetlands—or what the county, builders and City Hall like to call “the mesa” so the public views it as prime real estate, not a biologically sensitive natural resource. One eco-group, Amigos de Bolsa Chica, has bought off on allowing development to move forward on the upper. The Land Trust still holds out the hope that the much-maligned California Coastal Commission—formed in the early 1970s to regulate out-of-control development on the coast—can step in at the 11th hour and stop at least some of that building on grounds it would violate the state Coastal Act. The commission was supposed to take up the matter last August, but it was postponed at the request of the city of Huntington Beach to what would have been a Jan. 10 hearing in Long Beach. Now it's been put off until sometime in “the next few months,” according to the commission's latest agenda.
Though the city claimed more time was needed to study a 194-page commission staff report, it is assumed the developer, Shea Homes, actually lobbied for the postponement because it found the contents of the report to be problematic. Commission staffers have apparently verified the existence of wetlands on parcels where Shea plans for homes. If the commission agrees, Shea will literally be sent back to the drawing board.
Years ago, the Huntington Beach City Council—after having declared the upper wetlands are not wetlands at all—narrowly allowed Shea to build 349 homes on 56 acres of “the mesa” that was being used to grow beans. The Land Trust believes the subdivision, called Brightwater, can be halted—or at least significantly scaled back, perhaps to as few as 30 homes.
Whether their motives are for their grandchildren, waterfowl or unobstructed ocean views (new members have been culled from existing Shea neighborhoods farther up the mesa that will have their views blocked by Brightwater), Land Trust members have worked their tail feathers off to get major, positive changes made to the lower wetlands. With support also from the Amigos, government officials and, yes, even the developers, the just-completed Bolsa Chica Lowlands Restoration Project has returned 1,700 acres of wetlands to their natural ecosystem glory. Partially brought to you by the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, to compensate for their own expansions coming at the expense of similar wetlands upcoast, the project included the removal of concrete rubble, contaminated soil and hundreds of yards of industrial piping. Nearly 3 million cubic yards of sand were dug up, with most used to construct new pads, levees and overlooks surrounding Bolsa Chica's basins. The rest was pumped back into an ocean whose own sand has been depleted over the years by the ravages of urban runoff.
To continue fighting on behalf of the upper wetlands, the Land Trust needs money, and the way they get more money is by selling more memberships. With their current directory . . . ahem . . . graying off, young blood is essential. Call (714) 846-1001 or visit www.bolsachicalandtrust.org to join. If you're not a joiner, buy the Land Trust's 2007 “Wings Over Bolsa” calendar, which is filled with pictures of pretty birds and, at just $10, is a bargain. Grandma would love one.
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.