Coasts & Mountains

Burning questions

May 9, 2013

The Springs fire has left a trail of destruction—and ecological uncertainty—in Sycamore Canyon.

When wind-driven flames tore through one of the Santa Monica Mountains’ most scenic canyons last week, hearts sank with visions of another city escape transformed into a smoldering moonscape.

Sycamore Canyon draws thousands of visitors every month with its gorgeous vistas, canopied trees and a network of trails suitable for everyone from strolling couples to hardcore hikers.  So the big question was this: exactly how destructive was the fire that ignited near Newbury Park in the inland valley and didn’t stop until it reached the sea at Point Mugu State Park, about 30 miles north of Santa Monica?

Over the past couple of days, some answers—along with new questions—have emerged, as national and state parks experts have hit the charred ground to begin investigating the fallout from the only spring wildfire in anyone’s memory.

What they’ve found might be good news for people eager for a return to the trails but troublesome for the area’s wildlife, especially its birds, now in their prime nesting season. “Normally, with fall fires, that’s not going on,” said fire ecologist Marti Witter of the National Park Service. “There was probably a significant hit to bird populations.”

The rare early timing of the so-called Springs fire also has raised questions about the regenerative resilience of burned trees, which were in their spring growth period and already were challenged by drought conditions. Deciduous trees, such as the sycamores, had yet to begin moving nutrients from their leaves to their trunks, as they do during the late summer and fall months. Those leaves are now scorched or incinerated. At a minimum, experts predict that damaged trees could remain leafless and unsightly for months longer than if the blaze had erupted later in the year during the normal fire season, when subsequent wetter months help force new growth.

“People are going to be looking at a black landscape much longer than they normally would,” said Witter, of the park service’s Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

Sycamore Canyon remains off-limits to hikers.

For now, the public won’t be seeing anything; officials have ordered a two-week closure of the Sycamore Canyon Trail area until an assessment of the potential dangers can be determined. A key player in that process is National Park Service plant ecologist John Tiszler, who, like Witter, also works in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Earlier this week, he toured the popular lower canyon on behalf of Ventura County fire officials.

“Clearly, the vast majority of it burned,” Tiszler said. “I know people are very worried about this but I don’t think there’s any reason to think that a catastrophe has occurred.”

Tiszler said “the fickleness of the winds” had left some spots unscathed as the flames quickly shifted through the broad lower canyon beyond the undamaged Point Mugu campground. Those scattered green zones, he said, could provide refuge for displaced, nesting birds and such ground wildlife as lizards, which park service staffers are attempting to rescue. (Click here for a satellite image of the “burn scar.”)

Tiszler said that, in the lower canyon, he flagged only 15 sycamores and oaks that had the potential to fall along the fire-road trail. Only three or four of them, he said, should be taken down. But in the canyon’s upper, narrower passages, he said, the toll appears worse because of more intense flames and heat.

The staying power of all those affected trees could be tested in the days ahead, Tiszler said, when high winds are expected to whip through the area again. He also said a looser standard will be applied to damaged trees along hiking trails that don’t have gathering areas, where the public might linger and be at greater risk. “If there’s no person, car or picnic table,” he said, “then the potential of being a public hazard is much reduced.”  

Tiszler also noted that trees in Sycamore Canyon had withstood a number of blazes over the decades, including the more devastating Green Meadow fire in 1993. “Trees are like alien beings from another planet,” he said. “They are so different from us, the way they heal themselves, what they tolerate.” He said trees can stand strong even with deep hollows burned into their core because their weight is borne by their outer rings.

Like many veteran hikers and naturalists, Ron Webster of the Sierra Club does not view flames as an enemy of Sycamore Canyon’s trails, a good number of which he helped cut years ago. “You know, it’s just fire. The place greens up and then we’re off again,” said Webster, who, at 78, still leads trail crews in the Santa Monica Mountains.

“Be sure to schedule hikes there in the spring. You’ll see wildflower displays like you won’t believe,” Webster said, noting that seeds have long been lying dormant under the deep chaparral that has been burned away.

Witter of the park service said she, too, has learned to put the area’s fires in perspective. A longtime Topanga resident, she remembers the destruction of property—and the uprooting of lives—from the wildfires two decades ago that cut a fiery path from the mountains around her neighborhood to the ocean’s edge in Malibu.

“Seeing all those burned homes, that was emotionally devastating,” Witter recalled. “This fire has changed the landscape, but it should come back.”

Fire hollowed out the core of this broken oak so its outer rings could no longer support its weight.

 Posted 5/10/13

Transforming a prime beach vista

January 8, 2013

A long-deserted stretch of Will Rogers State Beach is poised for a makeover. Photo/Marina Chetner

The dirt lot overlooking the sand at Coastline Drive and Pacific Coast Highway has been vacant for three decades or so. Once it held a beachfront café owned by the restaurateur who started Gladstones. Then fire destroyed the place twice in five years.

So it sat, roped off and abandoned, little more than a cluster of faded parking spots and wooden pilings, as homeowners resisted the opening of a new restaurant along the already congested highway; after a while, passersby forgot that much of anything had ever been there.

This week, however, the county took the first steps in a $9.5 million plan to re-open the 1.9-acre site and make the beach there more welcoming to the public, starting with a spacious view deck that will not only provide improved passage to the shoreline, but also offer a stunning view down the coast toward Santa Monica Pier.

“This will be a great place to stop and listen to the waves and enjoy the sunset,” said Charlotte Miyamoto, chief of the county Department of Beaches and Harbors’ planning division.

“This will finally make use of an area that hasn’t been visited much,” Miyamoto added. “Right now, there’s a bus stop there and not much more.”

This wasn’t always the case. The site, at the northwesterly end of Will Rogers State Beach across PCH from the entrance to the Getty Villa, was once the location of an oceanfront café owned by Robert Morris, who in the 1980s was one of Los Angeles’ best known restaurant owners.

The spot had had an eatery on it since 1976, when the county had approved a summer concession and snack bar. A later restaurant on the site, Jetty’s, started by Morris and a partner, burned down twice—once in 1979 and again in 1984, according to Coastal Commission records.

After that, hopes dimmed for a comeback; at one point, Morris announced plans to reopen the restaurant, rename it the Malibu Deck and make it part of a proposed “restaurant row” of oceanfront dining on public beaches.

But the pushback was powerful. Pacific Palisades homeowners protested that a new beachfront restaurant would worsen congestion and generate crime, garbage and noise. And the state and county couldn’t agree on a plan for such an enterprise on the site. (Much of the state’s beach property here is operated by Los Angeles County and the lease revenue would have helped the county’s general fund in the midst of a recession, but the state was less enthusiastic at the time.)

Eventually, without a design that met current building and safety codes for the area, the restaurant lease was terminated. The empty lot was roped off and anyone who stopped at the site in hopes of a beach shortcut had to make their way down a steep embankment, where they found little more than those 52 ghostly-looking pilings and a narrow strip of sand.

By the late 1990s, the county had begun to explore ways to reopen the site’s beach access, but it took years to negotiate a workable plan with the California Coastal Commission. Among the sticking points were initial plans to shore up the bluff with a rock-covered, sloping embankment, which coastal commissioners felt was too intrusive. Eventually, the commission called for a 610-foot-long, 15-foot-high seawall that added several million dollars to the cost of the project, but preserved more of the beach. 

The current design, approved this week by the Board of Supervisors, will create a refurbished, 26-space parking lot next to a landscaped, 2,100-square-foot public view deck, from which pedestrians can access the beach via an ADA-compliant access ramp.

Construction costs are estimated at $5.76 million, plus some $3.5 million for plans, plan checks, consulting services and other construction costs. The project is set to break ground in April, with completion expected in October, 2014.

The site will be transformed with a viewing platform, along with parking and enhanced beach access.

Posted 1/8/13

Storming the beach as runoff flows

December 6, 2012

One local beach after last weekend's rain storms. Photo/Ana Luisa Ahern for Heal the Bay

The first storm of a Southern California winter can be welcome and even romantic. Not so the aftermath—or as clean-up crews at the beach wryly call it, “The First Flush.”

“Those big storms really clean out the creeks and the catch basins,” says Carlos Zimmerman, assistant chief in the facilities and property maintenance division at the county Department of Beaches & Harbors, and a 33-year employee of the department. “Everything washes down—trees, bushes, firewood, plastic bottles, foam containers. Tons and tons of trash. Dead dogs and cats. Snakes. All kinds of things, you wouldn’t believe it. I saw a BMW come out of Topanga Creek once.”

That’s why, as rainstorms pelted Southern California last weekend, county and municipal crews were hitting the beaches to clean up debris. Their efforts are just one of the ways—from pending litigation to an upcoming Clean Water, Clean Beaches ballot measure—in which runoff will be front and center this winter in Los Angeles County

“Things like education efforts and ordinances against single-use plastic bags and polystyrene containers are making inroads, but it’s obviously an extreme problem,” notes Kirsten James, water quality director at Heal the Bay, the environmental advocacy organization.

Debris, she notes, is just the most visible pollution that courses into the ocean after a rainstorm. (This is one reason why health officials recommend staying out of the ocean for 72 hours after a rainstorm.)

“Heavy metals and bacteria are in there as well,” James says. “Some years, [the First Flush] looks like you’re not even in a First World country—more like you’re at a dump than at the beach.”

Kerry Silverstrom, chief deputy director at Beaches & Harbors, says that county beaches get runoff from more than 200 storm drains, as well as from Ballona Creek, which dumps runoff from miles inland into Santa Monica Bay. Though “trash catchers” installed throughout the system in recent years are intercepting more and more garbage, some still is making it down to the shoreline. Because storm water often continues to flow long after a heavy rainfall, and the debris it carries can churn on the waves for days before being washed up by high tide, the cleanup after a storm usually lasts long after the clouds part.

“That was one of the surprises when I first came to Beaches & Harbors,” says Silverstrom. “I had no idea that there was as much winter work on the beaches as summer work.”

That winter work, done by year-round maintenance crews, can mean anything from tending beach restrooms to piling sandbags to pulling lifeguard towers back from the pounding surf. Kenneth Foreman, chief of the department’s facilities and property maintenance division, says nearly 80 county workers were deployed at a dozen coastal beaches after last weekend’s rain storms, from equipment operators with sand-sanitizing machinery to hand crews who walked the high-tide line, plucking scraps of litter.

The winter crews, he adds, start at 6 a.m. and work every day, rain or shine, including weekends. “We worked Saturday and Sunday, even though it was storming,” he says. “Often by the time the general public hits the beach, they have no idea how dirty it was before they got there.”

There are things the public can do to help limit beach pollution, from proper disposal of motor oil and animal waste to keeping trash out of the storm drains to letting local stormwater coordinators know if flooding occurs in your neighborhood from trash-clogged catch basins.

On a longer-term level, the Board of Supervisors will conduct a January 15 public hearing on whether to seek property owner approval of the Clean Water, Clean Beaches measure through a mail-in ballot.  The measure, prompted in part by toughened federal clean water standards, would raise $270 million for stormwater projects in Los Angeles County by assessing parcel owners based on the amount of runoff they generate (about $54 a year for a typical single-family residence.)

Meanwhile, cleanup crews will be fighting the good fight on a landscape that, when the storms hit, still too often becomes long on odor and short on scenery. At a Santa Monica city beach near the Pico/Kenter storm drain, a Heal the Bay staffer blogged last Friday morning that the sight and stench were “shocking.”

“I . . . saw runoff flowing fast out onto the Santa Monica beach, carrying along with it strong smells reminiscent of motor oil and gasoline, hundreds of plastic cups, chip bags, soda cans, an unusually high number of tennis balls, plastic bags (some full of pet waste), bits of Styrofoam, bottle caps, and more urban detritus,” blogged interactive campaigns manager Ana Luisa Ahern, who posted some haunting pre-cleanup photos on the organization’s web site.

“It was a saddening and somber sight, to say the least.”

Kenneth Foreman Sr. of Beaches & Harbors, in jacket at far right, hits the sand after last weekend's storms.

Posted 12/6/12

The mountains’ new king of the hill

October 30, 2012

David Szymanski shares some shade with park guide Bethany McCormick.

In 1976, David Szymanski’s grandparents took him on a Bicentennial road trip across the United States.

“I was eight,” he remembers. “We stopped at the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone, Hoover Dam, maybe the Grand Canyon. The landscapes of the Great Plains and the West were so different in so many ways from what I was used to. I remember coyotes yipping in Montana and Wyoming. It was spectacular. I was amazed that such places existed.”

That amazement stayed with him—as a teenager in the Rust Belt, as a University of Michigan engineering student and, in his senior year of college, in a random-but-career-altering class on the literature of the American wilderness that “dredged up everything I’d felt at eight.”  

Now Szymanski, a 44-year-old veteran of the National Park Service, is managing of one of Southern California’s own spectacular places as the new superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

Szymanski was named after a 10-month search for a successor to the popular Woody Smeck, who was the public face of the nation’s largest urban national park for more than a decade before moving on to a job as a deputy superintendent at Yosemite National Park.

It’s a tough act to follow, acknowledges Szymanski, who was half-joking but completely awestruck when he referred to Smeck as “St. Woody” during a recent meet-and-greet with public officials. The 153,750-acre recreation area is a complex jurisdictional patchwork with players at every level of government as well as powerful community and nonprofit interests; as superintendent, Smeck worked on everything from preservation guidelines for sensitive wildlife habitat to firefighting policy to funding for thousands of acres of open space acquisitions.

“He’s a great, great, great, great person,” Symanski says.

A couple of mule deer size up the new guy.

Szymanski, however, brings his own set of credentials, including long experience in areas with complex issues requiring cooperative management. He has spent nearly two decades working with parks and protected areas, including 14 years in the National Park Service.

His most recent stint was as superintendent of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park in the Pacific Northwest, but he also has served at Everglades National Park in Florida, Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, on the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks as a congressional fellow and, in the 1990s, in Madagascar, working in that country’s then-new national park system. 

“I’ve always enjoyed working in places where we’ve had to work with communities and partners to get things done,” he says. “At Lewis and Clark, we included several state parks in our boundaries, and in the Everglades, it was often sugar farmers against fishing guys, and finding solutions among people that often otherwise wouldn’t be in the same room. This is the best place in the country for those kinds of things.”

On the job for all of three weeks, Szymanski has already hit the ground hiking, reaching out to stakeholders and learning the landscape even as he settles in with his wife, Elaine, and their 6- and 8-year-old sons, and tries to squeeze in the occasional bike ride (he’s an avid cyclist.)

“I’ve hiked from Newbury Park up the Boney Mountain Trail. I’ve biked the Backbone Trail. I went to Solstice Canyon with the granddaughter of [grocery store magnate] Fred Roberts, who assembled so much of the canyon property and sold it into conservation. I met the neighbors at Zuma and Trancas Canyons, and went to a lot of smaller areas. Of course, I’ve spent time at the new Visitor Center at the King Gillette Ranch.”

On a recent afternoon, he strolled along the Inspiration Loop Trail near the Visitors’ Center, discussing ways to improve signage—a small-but-complex question, particularly for pet owners, since the 5-minute walk between the center and the unmarked trailhead traverses both National Park land (which allows dogs) and land overseen by the Mountains Restoration and Conservation Authority (where dogs are forbidden).

But the hike, led by NPS Park Guide Bethany McCormick, was also a lesson in the storied history of the property’s Hollywood origins and its stints as a retreat for various cults and religions. And midway through, it was interrupted by a family of five mule deer, who paused on the sun-dappled trail and then bounded away.

“The mountains in a way say so much about Los Angeles, about the people who came here to seek their fortune and then assembled this megalopolis,” says Szymanski. “But what’s also impressive to me is knowing that in 1978, most of the area was not protected. It’s really humbling in some ways because there are so many people here who are so active and with such a long list of accomplishment in this area. Our job, I think, is to continue that vision and to bring the resources we have at our disposal to that partnership.”

And, he adds, to hold onto our sense of amazement.

“My wife went out for a walk last week near where we’re staying, which is near Cheesboro and Palo Comado Canyons, and took a movie for our children, so they could hear the coyotes yipping in the background,” he marvels. “She was less than a half-mile from a residential area, and yet you had the sounds of the wild.”

The new superintendent surveys a small part of his new territory.

Posted 10/30/12

Riding to the rescue for 100 years

May 16, 2012

Bathing beauties were still posing on county lifeguard trucks in 1959. Photo/LA County Lifeguard Assn.

Summer isn’t summer in Los Angeles County without the bright yellow vehicles of the beach patrol.

“Iconic” is how Chief Lifeguard Mike Frazer described them last week as the Board of Supervisors gave the Department of Beaches and Harbors authority to sign a proposed agreement to take ownership of the fleet’s latest additions—45 custom-built Ford Escape hybrids that the county has leased since 2008. Under that proposed agreement, Ford Motor Co. would continue to advertise itself as the “Official Vehicle Sponsor” of the L.A. County beach lifeguards. So far, however, Ford has not agreed to a transfer of ownership.

Outfitted with state-of-the-art rescue equipment, the vehicles have saved not only lives but also more than $267,000 a year in fuel costs. “We’ve come a long way,” Chief Frazer says.

In fact, as the photo gallery below shows, beach rescue vehicles have come farther than Southern Californians might imagine. And to look back at their history is to dip into the region’s evolving—and sometimes dangerous—relationship with the beach.

Arthur Verge, an El Camino College history professor and veteran county lifeguard, notes that there was a time, not so long ago, when Southern Californians regarded the ocean as a frightening place that was best admired from afar. “Drownings were sadly common,” Verge says, adding that those who did go into the water often had no idea how to swim or how to get out of the powerful rip-currents that swept them out to sea in their heavy wool bathing outfits.

A county lifeguard and his Ford Escape are a lean, green team.

Professional ocean lifeguards didn’t even exist here until the early 1900s, when the City of Long Beach and real estate developers Abbot Kinney and Henry Huntington began paying “lifesavers” to reassure tourists outside the Long Beach Plunge and to promote the then-new developments of Venice and Redondo Beach.

Notably, Kinney and Huntington turned in 1907 to George Freeth, a celebrated Hawaiian surfer who not only trained L.A. County’s first generation of lifeguards but also pioneered rescue response.

“While fire departments were using horse-drawn rigs,” Verge says, “George Freeth, as early as 1912, was patrolling the beaches of Redondo, Hermosa and Manhattan Beach with a motorcycle, carrying a metallic rescue can in a special sidecar.”

Other early lifeguards were more low-tech.

“Santa Monica’s first lifeguard, ‘Cap’ Watkins, patrolled the beach on horseback,” Verge notes. “And George Wolf, the first Los Angeles city lifeguard, rode back on forth from Venice to El Segundo on a bike.”

By the late 1920s, both the city and county had lifeguards and trucks that ferried their gear along the boardwalks. That gear was stretched thin in the 1930s as the county lifeguards took over the beaches in the economically struggling South Bay.

“We didn’t get any new vehicles until the late ‘40s because World War II was on,” recalls Cal Porter, an 88-year-old retired county lifeguard and Malibu surfer. “If somebody had a bad rescue…we’d jump into this old 1933 International we had and head down Pacific Coast Highway. We’d be going as fast as we could, lights and sirens going—but all the other cars would be passing us.”

With wartime came the 4-wheel-drive jeep, developed by Willys-Overland Motors for the U.S. Army. The Willys allowed lifeguards for the first time to skip the boardwalk and drive directly across the sand. The jeeps were redeployed onto county beaches in the late 1940s; some remained in use for the next twenty years.

By the 1960s, the county had a fleet of Ford trucks with special racks for lifesaving equipment. Beaches filled with Baby Boomers and, occasionally, the products of the era’s experimental mood:  In 1970, the county bought two customized dune buggies from the designer Meyers Manx. “But they didn’t work,” Verge says. “Sand would get into the carburetor.”

Lifeguard operations consolidated in the mid-1970s under the county, which by 1975 had the world’s largest lifeguard organization—a distinction that brought marketing opportunities. Among them was the chance for car companies to become the “official” rescue vehicle supplier to the now renowned L.A. County beach lifeguards.

Kerry Silverstrom, chief deputy director of the county Department of Beaches and Harbors, says that in 1986, Nissan and the beach lifeguards signed an agreement. “They got name recognition, ad copy and the ability to say they’re the official vehicle of the County beaches,” she notes, “and we got to use their vehicles for free.”

Nissan’s deal—releasing 30 chrome yellow 4×4 King Cab lifeguard trucks and six light pewter Stanza wagons onto the county beaches—lasted until 1994, when Ford won the contract. Nissan got it back in 1999, but Ford made another comeback with the hybrid SUVs in 2008.

Frazer says lifeguards were accustomed to pickup trucks with gas engines, and concerned that sand might damage hybrids. “But one of our missions is to protect the environment, so we said, ‘Let’s see if this works.’ ”

He says the results have been striking.

“The visibility is amazing and the turning radius is almost twice what we had, so we can navigate crowds better,” he says. “It has traction even in places like Point Dume, which has a steep sloping beach. “

Silverstrom says the relationship with Ford has been a financial and environmental lifesaver as the economy and the Internet have made branding rights a tougher sell at beaches. As for the next generation of vehicles, Frazer says the lifeguards “continue to look at all the options.” After all, only 100 years have passed since George Freeth rode to the rescue on his motorbike.

Posted 5/9/12

Seeking ultimate clarity in beach law

February 15, 2012

A superhuman Beach Ultimate effort. Photo/Ladies of La—Women’s Ultimate Frisbee via Facebook

The beach-loving Ultimate Frisbee community has a message for the Board of Supervisors: Game on.

Several Ultimate Frisbee devotees, concerned about the impact of a new beach ordinance on their sport, came to the Hall of Administration Tuesday to give supervisors a piece of their minds—but ended up giving them a tutorial on the game, too.

“I don’t know what Ultimate Frisbee is. I’m sure it’s a great sport…But if you’re throwing projectiles around a beach when there are hundreds of thousands of people at the beach, the public safety comes first…It’s common sense that we’re asking you to employ,” board chairman Zev Yaroslavsky told the visiting players before asking them to explain their game.

“It’s a team sport. On the beach, it’s four on four or five on five, on a football-type field, not that big, with two end zones. And you advance the disc by throwing it to people on your team and you score by throwing it to a teammate in the end zone,” explained Alison Regan, a member of the Los Angeles Organization of Ultimate Teams, or LAOUT.

Yaroslavsky wondered how that would work in the midst of summer beach crowds: “So on a 90-degree day in Santa Monica in July or August, I would imagine it’s pretty tough to find space to have a game like this?”

“The beaches are large enough that we usually find some room,” Regan replied. “But we have to be accommodating, you’re right. When the public wants to walk through, we have to stop our play and we let the public walk through.”

It was the growth of new beach sports such as beach tennis and soccer that led to a recent liberalization of the county’s rules on ball-playing on the sand.

However, widespread erroneous media reports last week claimed that the county had enacted $1,000 fines for football and Frisbee playing at the shore, sparking a local uproar that quickly was heard ’round the world.

Although Department of Beaches and Harbors director Santos Kreimann moved to clarify the policy, saying that the new rules actually permitted football- and Frisbee-playing as long as it didn’t endanger other people on a crowded beach, the Ultimate Frisbee contingent was still troubled.

Tiffany Wallace, who plays on Solidarity Ultimate, which she described as a social justice Ultimate Frisbee team, said people should be allowed to use “Frisbees, footballs, soccer balls, even Ping Pong balls” at the beach without prompting “selective enforcement” under a too-vague ordinance.

Her sister, Julia Wallace, also addressed the board. “If the law is on the books, that’s enough to cause fear,” she said. “So it actually has to change.”

The board agreed. Supervisors, acting on a motion that Supervisor Don Knabe had submitted before the players testified, ordered a rewrite of the Frisbee- and ball-playing section of the new ordinance.

The new language should clearly state that “such activities by small groups and individuals are allowed at all times on the County beach” unless lifeguards direct otherwise for public safety reasons, the motion said.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas suggested that the players come back for an Ultimate Frisbee demonstration sometime.

And on their Facebook page, Ladies of La—Women’s Ultimate Frisbee, the disc-hurling activists declared victory.

Posted 2/15/12


Beach director says Frisbees are fine

February 9, 2012

Contrary to what you may have heard, it's OK to toss a Frisbee at the beach. Photo/Tim Finan

Santos Kreimann says he has nothing against Frisbees at the beach—honest. And it’s OK with him if you want to toss a football along the shore, too, as long as you do it responsibly.

That’s why the county’s Beaches & Harbors director was baffled Thursday to find that what his department views as a liberalization of the rules for beach recreation is being widely misinterpreted to mean that Frisbee- and football-throwing is now subject to a $1,000 fine.

Not so, Kreimann says. After years of outright prohibition, a new ordinance which received final approval this week spells out for the first time the conditions under which Frisbees and footballs are allowed on county beaches—basically, in the off-season, or with a permit or permission from the lifeguard.

For years, he said, that kind of recreation had been outlawed altogether “to prohibit some knucklehead from acting like an idiot on the beach.”

The Frisbee flap has received big play on the airwaves and the Internet. The Drudge Report headlined an incorrect report by a local TV station: “LA County Approves $1,000 Fine For Throwing Football, Frisbees On Beaches.” Inquiries have poured into county offices from reporters as far away as London. The Los Angeles Times provided a factually accurate counterpoint to the coverage with an article headlined: “Ball playing, Frisbee tossing now allowed on L.A. County beaches.”

The new ordinance does give the county the right to ticket Frisbee scofflaws, like people who persist in throwing into large summer crowds, or when asked not to by a lifeguard. The first offense is $100—an amount set by the California Government Code. (Read the department’s statement on the ordinance here.)

Still, Kreimann doesn’t expect many citations will be issued.

“We don’t ticket anybody for throwing a ball on the beach, as long as they’re doing it responsibly,” he said.

As for those new $1,000 fines you may have heard about: yes, they’re in the ordinance but they apply to only a few kinds of misbehavior.

Those include nudity, shooting weapons and swimming or surfing during hazardous conditions or in prohibited areas.

The revisions to the ball-playing section of the ordinance were prompted in part by the growing popularity of sports like beach tennis and beach soccer, which are now permissible under certain conditions.

Posted 2/9/12

Calling all stewards of the sea

January 11, 2012

Heal the Bay is looking for volunteers to help monitor newly-designated "Marine Protected Areas."

Protectors of Southern California surf just got a lot of new turf to keep an eye on. And they need your help.

On January 1, the California Fish and Game Commission gave marine ecosystems a regulatory facelift, creating 36 new Marine Protected Areas spanning 187 square miles of water. Several of the new areas, known as MPAs, are around Point Dume in Malibu. The designation places limits and sometimes prohibitions on fishing, and aims to create safe havens where sea life can thrive and multiply.

The environmental nonprofit group Heal the Bay was instrumental in helping to get the new designation. Now the organization is training “MPA Stewards” through a program called MPA Watch. Staff scientist Dana Murray, who manages the program, says you don’t need to be an expert to lend a hand.

“We had many supporters and people who worked hard to get the MPA approved in L.A. County,” she said. “We thought this was a good way for people to stay involved.”

Pairs of volunteers with binoculars, clipboards and cameras already have started canvassing the beaches, recording data on what they see people doing, from scuba diving to commercial squid fishing.

Murray said the data will be used to help promote legal recreational activities and to lend context to the marine biological data scientists are gathering. (Without monitoring the humans, Murray said, “you are skipping a species that affects all the rest.”) Perhaps most important, the data will be reported to the Fish and Game Commission in hopes of helping the agency stretch its limited enforcement resources.

However, Murray made it clear that MPA Watch is about collecting scientific data and not policing or reporting illegal acts.

“This is one way for us to aid the state without actually being the enforcement,” she said.

Those who care about marine life and enjoy long walks on the beach can become official stewards by attending two upcoming classes. The first class is scheduled for Wednesday, January 18, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Heal the Bay’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. The second class takes place “in the field” at Point Dume on Saturday, January 21, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

To register, you must be at least 15 years old and RSVP by Tuesday, January 17 (not January 13, as is posted on the website). No experience is required, but volunteers should be able to spend 1 to 2 hours outdoors doing some moderate hiking. A minimum 6 month commitment of 4 surveys per month is required, but survey times are flexible. Students can get involved as a way of fulfilling community service requirements at school.

Training sessions first began last March, and if you miss this month’s training classes, more are expected to be scheduled in the future.

The new designations grow out of the Marine Life Protection Act of 1999, which directed the state Fish and Game Commission to redesign California’s system of MPAs after finding it inefficient, having been established piecemeal instead of by scientific plan. In December, 2010, after receiving input from experts, the public and local government, the Fish and Game Commission created a new map of MPAs in Southern California. Click here to take a look.

Posted 1/11/12


Santa Monica Mountains man on the move

December 14, 2011

On the big screen, Woody Smeck introduces a sneak preview of Ken Burns' National Parks documentary series.

Woody Smeck may speak softly, but he carries a big reputation.

With his wide-brimmed hat and low-key eloquence, Smeck has become the public face of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and in many ways its staunchest guardian.

As superintendent of the country’s largest urban national park for more than a decade, Smeck has presided over the recreation area as it added thousands of acres of new public open space. Working with partners from every level of government as well as those from community and non-profit groups, Smeck has helped shape everything from firefighting practices to educational outreach to preservation guidelines for sensitive wildlife habitats.

And he has been a tireless advocate for the 153,750-acre recreation area, appearing in this video and countless other forums to explain the complexity and importance of the vast natural preserve at the edge of the one of the world’s largest cities.

Now he’s getting ready to to make his mark on another national treasure. In April, he will become Yosemite National Park’s new deputy superintendent. And those who’ve walked the path with him here are already feeling the loss.

Woody Smeck

“I’m so sad,” said Kim Lamorie, president of the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation, which honored Smeck with its “Citizen of the Year” award in May.

“There is only one Woody Smeck.”

In honoring Smeck, Lamorie credited his “quiet but persuasive ability to finesse funding” of new open space acquisitions. Future generations, she said, will “revel in the wonder of the wild and wonderful resources you have preserved.”

Geoffrey Given, who heads the advisory board for the Santa Monica Mountains campus of the educational program NatureBridge, said Smeck’s impending departure is “a huge loss for Santa Monica [but] a huge gain for Yosemite.”

“He has been an unbelievable advocate and supporter of what we do,” Given said. “At all of our fundraising events, he’d show up in uniform with his flat-brimmed hat on.” Smeck also put his money where his hat was, backing the organization’s educational outreach with funds from his own agency’s budget, Given said.

“I think he has made historic contributions to the National Recreation Area,” added Joe Edmiston, who as executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has worked closely with Smeck for years. “His shoes will be very difficult to fill.”

In announcing the appointment, Yosemite Superintendent Don Neubacher said Smeck “has the ideal background to helpYosemite achieve unequalled operational and innovative excellence.”

Smeck said Neubacher first reached out to him about joining the Yosemite team about 1½ years ago. With his youngest daughter still in high school, the timing wasn’t right initially. But now that she’s graduating at the end of this school year, Smeck decided to accept the offer.

He’ll head to Yosemite solo in early April and will live in park service housing until his wife, Karen, can join him, probably in July. They plan to buy a home in Mariposa.

The new position could put Smeck in line for greater executive responsibilities down the line—either at another national park or in Washington, D.C.

But he said he’ll miss his Santa Monica Mountains stomping grounds, where he got his professional start in 1991 as a young landscape architect with degrees from Cal Poly Pomona. Smeck reached the recreation area’s top job in 2001. He still marvels that he was able to get there without first transferring to other points around the National Parks system.

“People told me not to expect to stay [in one location] very long,” said Smeck, now 49.

The Superintendent and the President in 2003.

But stay he did—long enough to rub shoulders with influential people ranging from TV documentarian Ken Burns to President George W. Bush.

Bush’s visit in 2003, he said, was a high point—a recognition of the power of collaborative work toward a common goal.

“It was a great opportunity to talk to him about how partnerships work, how cooperative management works, and he genuinely listened to what I had to say,” Smeck said, recalling a 45-minute hike into the Rancho Sierra Vista area of Point Mugu State Park with Bush and a small group that included Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. “To get a presidential visit…was very uplifting for everyone.”

He said he’s also proud of completing a general management plan that “provides a unifying framework for preservation and stewardship” of parklands going forward. That plan, created with various state partners and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, established a “cooperative vision” that has informed an array of other actions, including blueprints for fire management and land protection.

His career is a natural outgrowth of an outdoorsy childhood in California’s Central Valley. “I spent my summers hiking and camping in the Sierra Nevada Mountains—especially Sequoia National Park,” he said. “By the time I was 21, I had experienced most of the Sierra Nevada wilderness.”

His first day on the job in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area started inauspiciously when he got lost trying to find the Rancho Sierra Vista trailhead.

“Back then, you had to drive through residential areas and gravel roads to find the obscure parking lot,” he said. “One of my first assignments was to develop a new entry road and trailhead from Potrero Highway. Today, I’m happy to report that visitors have a very scenic entry drive and wonderful staging area with good signs, drinking water, and clean restrooms to start their park experience at Rancho Sierra Vista.”

As he prepares to venture north to the world-renowned glories of Yosemite’s Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, he acknowledged that he’ll miss the lesser-known but equally beloved natural treasures he’ll be leaving behind in the Santa Monica Mountains.

“Oh wow, there are so many incredible places. If I had to pick one, the place that’s the closest manifestation of heaven for me is the Old Boney Trail in Point Mugu State Park,” he said. “It is just such a pristine, wild, raw, natural environment. It’s as if you’ve been transported into another world. It is spectacular.”

For Smeck’s photo of the Old Boney Trail and some of his other favorite sights in the Santa Monica Mountains, check out a gallery of his photos below.


Posted 12/14/2011

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