Coasts & Mountains

Surf’s up—and rescues, too

January 29, 2014

Surfers test their skill last weekend at El Porto, where waves have reached 12 feet. Photo/Lucio G

Bone-crushing waves in Palos Verdes. Lookie-loos being washed off the rocks in Abalone Cove. Kids getting caught two and three at a time in rip tides.

It’s been a gnarly winter on Southern California’s coastline so far.

Faced with a triple threat of unusually warm weather, long holiday weekends and, most recently, high surf advisories, Los Angeles County lifeguards have been hustling to keep up with a decidedly unseasonal spike in attendance at the beach.

“I’ve been a lifeguard since 1986,” marvels Los Angeles County Lifeguard Capt. Tim Arnold, “and this is by far the busiest December and January I’ve had in my career.”

January attendance at county beaches is almost twice what it was last year, with nearly triple the number of rescues, lifeguard figures show. Spurred by heat waves that have sent temperatures into the 90s in some parts of Southern California, beach-goers have hit the sand more than 2.6 million times this month, and lifeguards have had to make more than 111 rescues.

That’s not counting the thousands of people who have had to be warned away from dangerous water, or the hundreds who have gotten into enough trouble to require medical attention. And January isn’t over yet.

“This year’s Martin Luther King holiday was probably the biggest winter day I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Arnold. “Between Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach, we had, like, 20 rescues.”

Complicating the job has been a swell produced by a storm system over the central Pacific that has been generating 10- and 12-foot waves along parts of coastal Southern California.  South Bay beaches have been hardest hit, but county lifeguards also have felt it in Santa Monica and Malibu.

“It’s been tough for the guys sitting on the towers,” says Lifeguard Capt. Tim McNulty, who works the beaches from Big Rock in Malibu to Nicholas Canyon. At Zuma Beach, he said, only five of eight stations could be manned on MLK weekend because so many people on the “recurrent” list of part-time seasonal lifeguards were away at winter jobs or college.

“Everyone was on the edge of their seat with this surf and all those people,” says McNulty. “And we had hired everyone who was available on the recurrent list. We were calling people out of the blue.”

Lifeguards say rescues have been routine in nature, but summer-like in volume, with an inordinate number of novice surfers in over their heads.

“A lot of them are people on these boards called Wavestorms, that they sell at Costco for like $100,” says Arnold. “They’re like soft surfboards, and they essentially put a board into the hands of anyone who wants one, and these people are coming down and getting caught in situations they shouldn’t get caught in.”

Lifeguard Capt. Chris Linkletter, who also works in the South Bay, says daredevils and curiosity seekers have also been a problem.

“We had a surfer who broke his leg at the bottom of the Palos Verdes cliffs this week, and two people who were washed off the rocks in Abalone Cove,” she says. “We had some ‘blitzes’, too, where two or more people have to be rescued, usually from rip currents. Everybody’s seeing the high surf advisory on the Weather Channel and we’re having a lot more people who want to come out and take a look.”

Linkletter says she’s been advising all who will listen to remember a few basic safety tips for visiting the beach.

“Don’t swim alone,” she says. “Stay near an open lifeguard station. Keep a safe distance from piers and rocks, and obey the signs and warnings. And always check with the lifeguard to make sure conditions are safe.”

Lifeguards say they’re hoping for some relief this weekend, when Super Bowl parties are likely to keep at least some people at home.

“Other than that, I’m just waiting for rain,” says Arnold. “Though we don’t seem to get any of that anymore.”

Big waves and warm weather have been drawing unseasonal crowds to the beach. Photo/Lucio G

Posted 1/29/14

A safer shortcut

September 5, 2013

A winding bike path has some cyclists opting instead for the access road, shown in foreground above.

For years, cyclists have been streaking along a service road through Dockweiler Beach in Playa del Rey to avoid a crowded, winding, sandy stretch of the bike path just a few hundred feet away. But the popular alternate route has created safety headaches of its own when the bikes cut through an RV park to get back to the path.

“On occasion, bicyclists have been struck by motorists,” said John Burton, a civil engineer for Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. “Luckily, vehicles aren’t going too fast there.”

The county’s Department of Beaches and Harbors manages the RV lot, one of four connecting with the 1.4-mile access road. Carol Baker, a spokeswoman for the agency, said employees have long supported a separate path between the road and the beachfront Marvin Braude Bike Trail, which snakes 22 miles up the coast, through major tourist destinations like Venice and Santa Monica. Cyclists cause damage when they hit a vehicle gate arm at the lot entrance, she said, and RV tenants have voiced concerns about the large amount of two-wheeled traffic.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors authorized the Department of Public Works  to proceed with a grant application to fund a new 385-foot connector path so cyclists won’t have to cut through the lot. Burton, who is planning the project, said the new path will create a better environment for campers and cyclists alike.

“With this path they can enter the bike path promptly and safely,” said Burton. “Right now they have signs to discourage people from going through, but people still do because it’s the easy way to go.”

Just last winter, the county renovated part of the path to repair cracked segments. However, Eric Bruins, planning and policy director for the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition, said the real problem is the path’s layout and design.  

“It’s kind of a mess right now,” he said. “There’s a lot of sand on the path sometimes, so it’s pretty dangerous at times.”

That’s prompted many riders to turn to the access road as a straight-ahead, faster moving alternate to the winding beach route, Bruins said.

Another issue arises when large numbers of pedestrians wander onto the path at popular beaches. Beachgoers “are there to have a good time,” Bruins said, “but they aren’t exactly paying attention.” He said extra signage and path striping in places like Santa Monica have helped prevent people from crossing unsafely.

Despite the bumps and bruises, the trail remains highly popular among residents and tourists.

“You don’t have that kind of uninterrupted bikeway except by the rivers inland,” Bruins said. “It is a world class amenity—one of the must-do things when you visit L.A.”

Posted 9/5/13

When nine lives aren’t enough

June 20, 2013

Wildlife biologist Joanne Moriarty says fire adds yet another dimension to the stresses on the region's bobcats.

The sighting was unusual and upsetting. Just days after fire-ravaged Sycamore Canyon re-opened, worried hikers began to report seeing a bobcat sitting passively on a charred trail. Alarmingly skinny, she was not running away. Her whiskers were singed, and it was clear she’d had an earlier encounter with people. Her ears, they said, were tagged.

National Park Service officials, who’ve been tracking and studying bobcats in the Santa Monica Mountains for years, searched the canyon but couldn’t find the spotted cat. Then, earlier this month, a report came that left no uncertainty about the animal’s condition or location. A hiker found her dead a few miles beyond the Point Mugu State Park campgrounds, north of the Los Angeles County line.

Wildlife ecologist Joanne Moriarty of the park service says the bobcat’s entire “home range,” or habitat area, had been incinerated. “But the biggest thing was that her paws appeared to be burned. She couldn’t hunt or walk very well.”

This bobcat, its paws burned, would later be found dead by hikers as a result of the Springs fire in May.

The bobcat’s death, announced last Thursday on the Facebook page of the park service’s Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, prompted an outpouring of comments lamenting the animal’s fate. One mountain biker, who’d seen the bobcat on the trail, said “it was the saddest thing to have to walk away from [her]. RIP beautiful cat.”

But the death also came with an irony for park service researchers—and a lesson for the broader public living in the region’s tinder-box conditions.

Several years ago, the bobcat—known simply as B274—had been captured, tagged and monitored with 16 others as part of control group for a landmark study of bobcats in the area’s more urbanized areas, such as Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village. There, the animals had been hit with an epidemic of potentially deadly mange. Researchers theorized that the cats’ immune systems had been compromised by eating rats poisoned with anti-coagulants, the most commonly used method of rodent control. Meanwhile, the control group, outfitted with GPS collars and living in the wilds, showed no evidence of mange or other immune problems.

But, in the end, bobcat B274—and probably many others—couldn’t be saved from another modern-day reality: An estimated 94 percent of wildfires in the Los Angeles region’s mountains are ignited not by nature but people acting carelessly, negligently or maliciously. “Even though these bobcats were in a much more natural area,” Moriarty says, “in reality they were still highly affected by human causes.”

According to investigators, the rampaging Springs fire, which came at an extraordinarily early time in the year, was accidentally caused by an “undetermined roadside ignition of grass and debris,” most likely from a passing vehicle.

Moriarty says that bobcats, which are solitary and territorial, are already stressed because their habitat has been sliced by roads and shrunken by developments. Now, with officials this week warning of fire conditions that look to be the worst in a century, she and other scientists worry that the toll on wildlife could be profound, especially with fires flaring earlier in the year because of worsening drought conditions.

Moriarty feels certain, for example, that bobcat kittens were killed in the Springs fire because it came during the “denning” season, when mothers are caring for litters of up to five kittens in the mountain underbrush. Of the 5-year-old bobcat found on the trail, Moriarty says, it’s “very possible she may have had kittens.”

And this, of course, raises broader concerns about survivability. “Anything that affects reproductive timing has huge impacts on a population’s ability to exist,” says biologist Laurel Serieys, who’s been collaborating with the National Park Service on bobcat research and runs a website called Urban Carnivores. “Human impacts on the environment and the wildlife extend far beyond the city boundaries.”

Exactly how many bobcats survived the wind-driven flames that hop-scotched through Sycamore Canyon is unknown. “Definitely, some of them are going to end up perishing,” Moriarty says. Budget permitting, she says, she’d like to set up remote cameras to track possible survivors and document the challenges they’ll surely face.

“As a person, it makes me sad,” Moriarty says of the likely bobcat deaths. “But as a scientist I find it interesting. We’ll have an opportunity to learn how even those who managed to escape are still going to be negatively impacted by the fire.”

National Park Service officials have undertaken the largest study ever of bobcats, monitoring them in the Santa Monica Mountains with GPS collars. Photo/Pete Padilla

Posted 6/20/2013

Bingo! Beach restoration’s a winner

May 22, 2013

Sunbathers, take note: Venice Beach is wider, thanks to an award-winning sand restoration project.

Just in time for the unofficial start of summer, Venice Beach has landed some national bragging rights as one of the best restored beaches in the country.

The recognition from the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association honors the $1 million restoration of a 650-yard-long stretch of Venice Beach that was severely eroded by winter storms of 2004 and 2005, and walloped again—although less severely—in 2010.

The restoration—known as “nourishment”—served to widen key areas, protect county buildings, minimize erosion and make it easier for sand to build up naturally during the summer months.

“A year and a half later, we’re looking at super-wide beaches,” said Charlotte Miyamoto, planning division chief for the Department of Beaches and Harbors.

The 2011 restoration project required transporting 30,000 cubic yards of sand from an area north of the Venice breakwater to the damaged area near county lifeguard headquarters, about a half mile south.

Venice Beach shares top honors with six other beaches around the country, including Delray Beach in Florida, Nags Head Beach in North Carolina, Pelican Island in Louisiana, and the Edgartown beach on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

Lee Weishar, who chaired the ASBPA committee that assessed the contenders, said that beach restoration funding, particularly from the federal government, has been hard to come by in recent years. But he noted that Hurricane Sandy provided a dramatic wakeup call, with unrestored beaches damaged more profoundly than those that had been “engineered” with restoration projects.

“It’s a hard way to learn that a restored/engineered beach makes a big difference,” he said.

Miyamoto, of Beaches and Harbors, said that as the county plans for climate change, more beach restorations may be on their way.

“These are things that we’re going to have to continue doing,” she said.

Posted 5/22/13

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

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