Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Seeds of Change

Sowing a Green Movement in Glendale

From the January issue of Verdugo Monthly

Glendale may soon experience a new growth spurt. Not more shopping malls, but vegetables, fruit trees and flowers cropping up on vacant lots. The city — at the urging of mayor John Drayman — is partnering with a fledgling environmental group to plant at least one community garden. “The idea is to have gardens at properties the city isn’t using,” says Drayman, “And to provide a place where people — especially in highly populated areas with many multi-family dwellings — can walk to, and plant flowers, fruit trees, produce.”

The test case is an 11,000-square-foot vacant lot on Monterey Road, next to the Glendale Avenue off-ramp of the 134 freeway. On a recent morning, 22-year-old Alek Bartrosouf scoops up a crumpled soda can from the barren earth. “This is a house lot, abandoned since 1976. It’s owned by the city. Every now and then city employees clean out the weeds and the trash.”

A brick wall and a few palm trees are all that separate the lot from the hissing freeway. If all goes according to plan, this pocket of blight could become a verdant refuge: 20 or so neighbors would claim plots; others would be invited to workshops on gardening, water conservation and composting. The community garden would also feature a tool shed, fruit trees, and a demonstration garden displaying native and Mediterranean plants, watered with drip irrigation.

A floral perfume and the sweet-spicy aroma of sage might help to mask the gritty, metallic freeway smell. Other natives, such as California lilac and the red-berried toyon bush, would likely attract birds, butterflies and bees.

Bartrosouf sees it as a place to nurture environmental awareness: “What a community garden does, is it gets people together. They get to grow their own food, which is environmentally friendly. We won’t use pesticides. We’re also hoping to have a pergola that’s solar-powered, to feed power back to the grid.”

Bartrosouf grew up in Glendale, and credits a teacher at Clark Magnet High School in La Crescenta with sparking his interest in environmental issues. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz, he returned home. “The first thing I noticed,” he recalls, “is there are no recycle bins in public areas. In Santa Cruz there are.”Despite his passion for the environment, Bartrosouf looks more Glendale than Santa Cruz. He’s clean-cut, not pierced or tattooed, and — with the exception of a small turquoise bracelet — dresses fairly conservatively. “I know when to be professional,” he says.

Two years ago, Bartrosouf reconnected with childhood friend Ana Khachatrian, a recent USC graduate. Through a friend, they met another Glendale native of Armenian descent, Garen Nadir. The three were impressed by how other Southland cities, such as Santa Monica and West Hollywood, were responding to environmental problems, and decided Glendale needed a green push from the grassroots. So they launched Coalition for a Green Glendale.

While trolling around the city’s web site, they learned about its Adopt-a-Block program. When they inquired about it, a city staffer suggested they start a garden. Bartrosouf, Khachatrian and Nadir didn’t have green thumbs, but they saw the opportunity to provide environmental education, especially on water conservation. So they signed on and dubbed the project an “eco-community garden.”

One day when the trio was handing out reusable shopping bags at the Montrose Harvest Market, they met landscape architect Guillaume Lemoine. The middle-aged French √©migr√© became their fourth member and designer of the Monterey Road community garden. 

Green Glendale and the city hope to make the place ready for gardeners in April or May. Fifteen people have already applied for plots. Among them is 81-year-old Beatrice Crain. “I’m interested because I love plants,” she says in Spanish. “In my house, my plants are my children.” Crain lives in an apartment. Her actual son, Raphael Cardona, says she has small potted plants on each of the 14 steps outside her home, but: “She’s running out of space. The landlord told her, ‘you really can’t have all these in an apartment.’ So she’s looking for a piece of land where she can freely grow a few tomatoes, some flowers...” “I have some seeds,” she beams, “Some very special peach seeds.”

The elderly and children are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of the eco-community garden, says Glen Dake, board member of the Los Angeles Community Garden Council. “[They] have a place to go. Elderly gardeners develop a better social network. Kids have a place to make mud pies. Among children, it develops stewardship — digging in the dirt, seeing bugs, eating vegetables that they see growing.”

Glendale Mayor John Drayman hopes the garden will also boost morale. “In an economy like this where folks are feeling the pinch, this becomes more important. For many residents who don’t have the economic wherewithal, they start to feel there’s nothing we can do to help ourselves. This is something you can do to directly affect your situation.”

The garden might also improve the participants’ health: A study of a community garden in Pacoima found gardeners there ate more fruits and vegetables than neighbors who didn’t grow food.

Coalition for a Green Glendale wants to raise $50,000 — in cash and, especially, donated materials — for the project. So far the group has secured only a $5,000 grant, but it expects the city to contribute another $5,000 or more. If they fall short, Green Glendale could scale back plans and get started for far less, says LA Community Garden Council’s Glen Dake. Still, it’s a big project for a group of four volunteers.

City managers are eager for Green Glendale to build more community gardens. They’re already proposing a site on Geneva Street. “We’re getting a lot of support from the city,” says co-founder Bartrosouf, “Most people we’ve spoken with are encouraging for our coalition to get out there and do the work.”

To learn more or get involved visit Green-Glendale.org or lagardencouncil.org

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Rio Los Angeles State Park

This park was born when LA River advocates and parents in nearby Glassell Park and Cypress Park sued the city of Los Angeles, Union Pacific and a developer to prevent more industrial development at the former freight switching yard.  According to Raul Macias of the Anahuak Youth Soccer Association, these communities, just north of downtown, urgently needed more parks.

Today the site, known as Rio Los Angeles State Park, features athletic fields, a playground, a picnic area, and a short, interpretive trail through an "oxbow" of willows, sycamores and other native plants. On a recent visit, I spotted a flock of meadow larks dashing around a soccer field. I was wowed by a sunset over Elysian Park, and a good look at the Verdugo Mountains (to the north).  Despite the name, this park is near--but not next to--Los Angeles River.  According to The River Project, the hope is the state will one day buy 62 adjacent, riverfront acres from Union Pacific.

My son loved the play structures here, as well as the exuberant little kids, and those fascinating preteens on skateboards. On weekdays, kids can watch freight and passenger trains running on nearby tracks. If you live fairly close, this is a nice place to take younger kids to play. (It's about 2 miles from the 110, 5 and 2 freeways.) I don't consider it a hiking destination. The trail is tiny. If you live on one side of town, and your friend with kids lives on the other, this is a great place to meet. The park is staffed and--despite the tough reputation of the surrounding community--I consider it safe. It's also clean and well cared for by LA City Parks and community volunteers.

1900 San Fernando Road
Los Angeles

From the 110 freeway, exit Avenue 26. Drive north until the road ends at San Fernando. Continue about a mile to Macon Road, and turn left into the park. There is a Goldline station 1.3 miles away at Ave 26.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Turtles Get Around

The Santa Monica Mountains are a refuge for many species that used to be common in LA County, but now face uncertain futures. One is the western pond turtle. Rosi Dagit, a biologist with the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains, studies them. She says, "Who knew turtles lead such soap opera lives." Here's my report. 

Monday, December 8, 2008

Less In the Season of Excess

Tips for a Green Holiday

From the December Issue of Verdugo Monthly

My husband says some day my mouth is going to get me killed. It’s the not profanities or my short fuse, but the little tidbits of neighborly advice I dispense. The way I tell people they should consider adjusting their sprinklers so they don’t irrigate the street, or use their leaf litter as mulch instead of blasting leaves (and pollution from the blower) around their property.

The end could come this holiday season. Many of my neighbors launch an all-out blitz: every shrub blinks; giant (electric-powered) blow-up Santas perch on roofs; Christmas trees glow around the clock. Entire North Poles are erected without irony. (Lighting my yard; melting the Arctic.) Garbage cans burst with things that shouldn’t be trashed. I don’t want to deprive people of their holiday pleasures. I just want to inject a little moderation. California waste officials say Americans throw away a million extra tons of trash a week from Turkey Day to the New Year.

An easy solution is to apply the conservation mantra: reduce, reuse, recycle—in that order. Buying sparingly means less energy consumed, fewer pollutants produced and resources depleted. Ditto for reusing; plus it keeps junk out of landfills. Recycling is great, but it takes energy to reformulate materials. Still, by all means recycle, and buy recycled products.

Looking for a little grinchy sympathy, I called a few people who have simplified their holidays. They left me less cranky — even inspired.

’Tis the Gift to Be Simple

Robert Lilienfeld, the stingy but sharp mind behind Use-Less-Stuff.com says, “The earlier you shop, and the more you plan, the more likely what you buy is something people will like. [The problem is] the last-minute trip where you buy whatever you see.” Lilienfeld likes experiential gifts. This year he’s giving his teenaged daughters tickets to the musical Wicked. He also recommends ball game tickets, and iTunes cards. “If you think about your holiday memories from when you were a kid,” he says, “what you remember are the experiences you had. Grandma drank too much eggnog. What you ate for dinner. ”

Last year, Los Angeles journalist and mom Julia Posey asked her family to skip the “stuff” and give memberships. She was delighted with the result: Free admission to the L.A. Zoo, the L.A. County Natural History Museum and Descanso Garden. Posey has simplified her family life and documents it on her blog, Ramshackle Solid. She makes lovely homemade gifts. She recently bought plain wooden nesting dolls and painted them with animals her son has seen at home and on hikes. “Kids don’t need a lot,” she reminded me. “You want to give them less, so their imagination has space to play.” She inspired me to sew finger puppets. For this, I’m using both naturally dyed wool felt and synthetic felt made of recycled plastic. The tiny bird puppets will also double as holiday ornaments. 

When you buy tangible gifts, pay attention to the amount of packaging. Is a tiny doodad encased in yards of plastic? If so, look for a better choice. Martin Schlageter with the L.A. environmental group Coalition for Clean Air advises, “Look at product labels. Look at where something is made, and if it has recycled or organic content.” He tries to buy things made locally, because of the pollution generated by transporting goods. Schlageter also evaluates durability: “Pay a little more for something that’s going to last.”

It’s a Re-Wrap

In the 1970s, my family was either a conservation pioneer — or just thrifty: We always opened gifts carefully and reused the paper, bows, and boxes. I still do. Use-Less-Stuff guy Robert Lilienfeld says the key is to have separate, marked boxes ready to collect the scraps as people unwrap. Don’t bother to wrap the really big stuff, put a bow on it or hide it. “Especially for little kids, they don’t care,” says Lilienfeld. “No one is ever going to say in therapy at age 35, ‘I wish my mom had wrapped gifts better.’” Get creative. You can use brown paper bags, old comic books, and scraps of fabric. 

Similarly, my friend Julie Wolfson offers this Chanukah tip: “If you are determined to give your kids a present every night, don't waste wrapping on all of them. Buy or make one gift bag for each kid, and put her gifts in it each night. My kids love to see what's in their ‘Chanukah bag.’”

To Tree or Not to Tree? 
Despite my reputation, I certainly wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of a Christmas tree. Burbank and other cities will mulch them. To cut pollution from trucks that haul the trees away, consider chopping up at least the fine branches at home and using them to mulch flowerbeds or improve your compost pile.

A couple of years ago I tried a Christmas rosemary bush — with mixed results. It was cheap, easy and smelled great. The idea was, after the holiday, I’d plant it or cook with it. It graced my Christmas day, but died before I could reuse it. Nevertheless, it’s a lot easier to chop up — and make mulch or compost from — a small shrub than a large tree. Some years, I’ve just decorated a few boughs, placed on the mantle.

For the trimmings, LED holiday lights — which use a lot less energy and last longer — are now widely available. The bulbs also fit some electric menorahs, says Liore Milgrom-Elcott of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. “If it’s big enough,” she adds, “you can use compact fluorescents (CFLs).”

Adan Ortega, board member of the open space group Amigos de los Rios, decorates and reuses a tree made of recycled plastic. He says, “My preference is to celebrate the way Mary, Joseph and Jesus did: with humility. I prefer my son’s hand-made decorations.”

Waste Not

To prevent wasted food, Robert Lilienfeld advises a little planning: “You know there will be leftover turkey. Think what you want to do with it before you shop. Look at it as an ingredient for the next couple of meals. If your family loves soup, buy the ingredients at the same time.” Pay particular attention to poultry, meat, and dairy. It takes a lot of resources — and puts a lot of greenhouses gases into the air — to produce that protein at the top of the food chain.


Buying carbon offsets has become a fashionable way to unburden the consuming conscience. Why not undertake your own mitigation? To start, you can pay a junk-mail – removal service, such as Green Dimes, to remove your name from advertiser and catalogue mailing lists. Guilty of buying too many electronic gadgets? Make amends for the hazardous waste they create (when discarded) by investing in a battery charger and rechargeable batteries. You can even buy solar-powered battery chargers. Be sure to donate unwanted toys, housewares and clothes to charity. Many people here in southern California would appreciate things I see stuffed in trashcans.

If you must have Las Vegas on your lawn: unplug cell phone chargers, computers, and other electronics when you’re not using them. They draw down power even when they don’t need it. 

Saving energy will save you money. So embrace your inner Grinch. Being lean and green is a good strategy for our times.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Just Desert

 Tasty Little Trip

Okay, it's not really a vacation when you've got a toddler along, but it's an education. Recently my husband and friends played golf La Quinta. Our son and I went a long for fun. 

If you have the time, by all means, visit the lovely Joshua Tree National Park. With less time, try these spots, near desert cities. Don't trek around the desert in the (outrageously hot) summer; visit late fall through spring.

The tram is popular, but it's also a great way for kids to get a spacial (and dramatic) image of what a mountain is. The tram swoops you up 4,000 feet to an elevation of 8,516 feet in about 15 minutes. Even in the parking lot, kids can get a good look at lofty San Jacinto. Just out of the car, our 20-month-old exclaimed, "Look! Mountain!" A ride of any kind is a thrill at this age. "All aboard!" he called, getting on the tram. 

Even adults who aren't nature buffs enjoy the views from up  top Mount San Jacinto: the Coachella Valley and a (subalpine) conifer forest. This is also a great place to hike. Most people don't venture far, so if you have older kids and can make a day of it, you can savor a wilderness experience.
Living Desert
Palm Desert
I prefer wild animals, but appreciate the opportunity for a close up look at those in captivity. Living Desert is a mini-zoo and gorgeous botanic garden (for blooms visit in spring). I wish the mountain lion here had more space to roam. But I was happy that my son could get a look at it. In all my years hiking, I've never seen a mountain lion in the wild. They're very shy, and smell you coming before you can get a glimpse. 

I was hoping to get a closer look at this bob cat, but Mateo kept yelling "Wild cat! Wild cat!" 

Living Desert is also a great place to see big horn sheep

Thousand Palms
Although palms are ubiquitous in southland cities, the (desert) California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera) is the only one native to the state. In the wild, they grow in desert oases such as this one. The interpretive trail here offers a nice introduction to mojave desert ecology. With luck, you might see some of the 25 species of reptiles that live in the preserve, including the fringe-toed lizard. Although your toddler might most enjoy moving dirt from one side of the trail to another. Remember to bring water with you, even on short outings. 

Recommended reading: 50 Best Short Hikes in California Deserts by John Krist (Wilderness Press)

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Night at Buckhorn

First a shout out to a humble coffee mug. Who knew that lump of ceramic could travel an hour and a half up a mountain road to an elevation of 6,300 feet, over campground speed bumps...on top of a Subaru, and still serve up a cup of (cold) joe?

And, boy, did my husband need that coffee. Setting up camp--and camping generally--with a toddler is a challenge. You need extra vigilance to keep face-plants to a minimum and prevent campfire casualties. Then there's (not) sleeping next to a little frog that hops all over your tent, leaving you curled up in a cold corner. 

Still, if you don't have any expectation of relaxing, camping with little kids is fun. Really. 

Just take a gander at the lovely Buckhorn campground, near Mount Waterman.

Our 19-month-old enjoyed tossing pine cones, singing "tinkle, tinkle, little tar" by the fire, and tasting cocoa. Mom and Dad liked the scenery, including a full moon, and a whole lot of stars you can't see from most of LA County.

Los Angeles River Ranger District
Camp fees $12
If you drive elsewhere in the forest, you'll need to pay an additional $5 for a day use pass.

From the 210 in La Canada, take the Angeles Crest Highway (2) up into the mountains for 34 miles. This campground is about eight miles past the Chilao campground. Start looking for the turn off after you pass the Mount Waterman ski area. The sign is on your right, but the campground entrance is to your left. Signs at the campground will point you to the Burkhart Trailhead

Buckhorn has water, fire rings, and typical, grungy pit toilets.  The Forest Service posts campground conditions and restrictions on
 it's website, but is also good idea to call for additional information. There is a warning about bear activity at Buckhorn.  I've camped in bear country plenty of times, and know how to take precautions, but wanted more information. I wanted to know if these bears had retained their natural fear of people--or not (as can happen when they become too familiar with people and their delicious trash). When I called, a district ranger told me bears have been spotted in the area, but there haven't been reports of aggressive bears. 

BEAR BASICS: Always put your trash in campground (bear-proof) bins. Don't leave food or personal care products--toothpaste and sunblock smell yummy to bears--in your campsite, especially NOT in your tent. It's a good ide
a to put all smelly stuff into a bag and hang it in a tree away from your campsite. If you don't want the bear to eat it, you'll have to hang it so a bear can't climb to it. You can also buy bear-proof canisters, used by backpackers. Don't put it in your car, unless you're willing to risk a break-in. 

We hiked a gorgeous stretch of the Burkhart Trail.  I got a buzz from all that granite, the giant jeffrey pines (they look like ponderosas) and fragrant incense cedars. I plotted future trips to the high country. Then my husband pointed out we were descending quite a bit; I noticed the trail was getting narrower, and the drop-offs steeper. "That's far enough," I said. "Let's turn around before the boy starts kicking." I starting kicking loose rocks off the path. I was envisioning husband and toddler toppling over into the steep canyon below. It's a distinct problem of hiking with a toddler: you never know when he'll want out. And this trail was no place for a little kid to stand, let alone amble. I was thinking, How old would he have to be before I trusted him on a trail like this? Much older! 

Mercifully, the boy fell asleep; the hike out of the canyon was peaceful, and safe.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Camping Checklist

  • Water: a big jug or two, plus smaller bottles. Double check that your campground has piped water. Some that used to, don't any more. Call the district ranger at the park or forest you're visiting.
  • Easy-cook or no-cook meals. Breakfast: Cold cereal isn't inviting on a crisp morning in the mountains. Oatmeal is a good choice; as is the eggs in a carton. Easy lunch: My husband likes cheese, salami or turkey slices, apple and crackers. Also, tortillas because they don't get squished and you can roll up just about anything in them. Dinner possibilities: On a recent trip we brought fixing for spaghetti. We chopped veggies and cooked ground turkey ahead of time. The turkey was recycled into the next night's tacos. We mixed left over spaghetti (with veg) into the next morning's eggs.
  • Trail snacks: trail mix, energy bars, fruit, chocolate, perhaps Gatorade
  • Campfire treats: marsh mellows, cocoa, etc
  • Tea bags, coffee
  • Cook pots
  • Utensils, including special ''kidware" such as toddler spoons and bibs, if needed
  • Plates, cups. We use items from a picnic backpack (basket). You could also bring biodegradable plates and cups.
  • Coleman stove or backpack stove
  • Camp lantern. Much more important if you have little kids, as we discovered.
  • Flashlights and/or headlamps. Check that the batteries are working; bring extras
  • Biodegradable soap like Dr. Bronner's
  • TP (don't count on it being there!)
  • Towels. We like the quick-dry camp towels you can get at outdoor stores
  • Baby/kid food, milk
  • Diapers, rash cream, lovie and other kid essentials
  • Potty seat for little ones--pit toilets are wide
  • For little ones, Kelty or other kid carrier
  • Extra blanket for little kids who struggle in a sleeping bag. Lay the blanket over the sleeping pad, unzip sleeping bag and use it as top blanket.
  • Campground toys, such as a small ball
  • Cooler and ice
  • Pocket knife
  • First aid kit
  • Medication
  • Sleeping bag: be sure to check campsite p.m. temperatures and know how low your bag can go.
  • Sleeping pads. We use Therm-a-Rest pads.
  • Pillows, if needed (or stuff your fleece in a sleeping bag case)
  • Trail maps, trail book, field guides
  • Hiking boots and hiking socks (good for longer hikes and general comfort). If you're carrying a kid, good shoes are important. However, if your critter is fully afoot and you're not going far, sneakers are fine.
  • Layered clothing: I use sun-screening hiking shirts, fleece, and a waterproof coat. I bring long johns or silk undergarments to cold campsites.
  • Trekking poles, if you're backpacking or hauling a kid
  • Binoculars
  • Camera. Make sure it's charged.
  • Tent(s). We use two backpacking tents because we already have them, but larger "family tents" are comfy for campgrounds
  • Firewood. There may not be any. You are not allowed to cut branches on public lands, and some places prohibit gathering anything off the ground. Other places you simply won't find felled materials.
  • Toiletries, including kid toothbrushes
  • Sunblock, lip block, bug juice. I also like to bring Technu, in case I brush up against poison oak; and After Bite, since mosquito bites can keep me awake at night.
  • Water filter, if you think you might have to pump from a stream, or don't want to boil water.
  • Folding chair(s), if space permits
  • CASH! Perhaps a check book if that's how you plan on paying campground fees.
  • Forest pass, if required. Southern California's four national forests require Adventure Passes. You don't need one if you leave your car in the campground, but if you drive to another trail, you will need one
  • Booze!
  • Perhaps GPS, if you have one
  • Solar shower bag is a nice add-on. If you're using all of this, er, stuff on the list your car will be crammed. (We packed a lot on the top of the Suburu.) Solar showers passively heat water you can use to keep your critter clean. And if you're sleeping next to him/her in the tent, you'll appreciate it. You can also use it to wash dishes. (We got ours at REI.)
  • My husband throws in lengths of rope, camp hammock, a tent repair kit, and other things that remain a mystery to me but, apparently, are manly necessities. Okay, as he has pointed out, I have made use of these extra items.
Again, this is a lot of gear. You don't need it all. Try a night of camping with the basics, then add on if you enjoy it and keep going.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Going Native

Yipee, It's fall! I've been away from the computer and out in the yard. Yanking crab grass, pruning shrubs. Preparing to plant. Yesterday I popped in at the Theodore Payne Foundation to buy wildflower seed, and chat with nursery manager Louise Gonzales about what to add to my garden this year. Fall and winter are the time to start native plants. I like to sow my wildflower seeds in the fall. I scatter them about indiscriminately, and wait to be surprised.

This year I've selected three varieties of
clarkia, including elegant clarkia and one called farewell to spring. Elegant clarkia dazzles with its tall spikes of dark pink blossoms. In the wild, I've seen them over five-feet tall. I'll also toss out two kinds of nemophila-- petite, deep-blue "baby blue eyes" and "five spot"-- and a couple of lupines  I snatched up a couple varieties of my favorite bulbs, mariposa lily.  These little darlings come in a variety of colors, often painted with intricate patterns.

Later, I'll add young perennials, started at Theodore Payne. I'm looking forward to the return of woolly blue curls, a shrub with a delicious minty/pine aroma. It unfurls velvety, purple bracts. (That's a part of the plant below the flower, but to my novice eye, it just looks like more gorgeous flower.) I like to snip some of these and mingle them with roses for a fragrant bouquet. 

If you are a notorious plant killer, try the hardy, bold orange California Poppy. It's the state flower and virtually indestructible. But plant sparingly as it will reseed itself profusely.

Recommended Reference: California Native Plants for the Garden, Bornstein, Fross, and O'Brien. For a glimpse at how indigenous plants could look in your yard, visit the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont. For more of my writing on native plants, take a peek at the "Southland Ecology" stories on this blog, and check out this radio report on a nursery in San Juan Capistrano. 

Thursday, October 30, 2008

It Flows at a Price

The Colorado River Delta

One of my favorite stories from my years of radio reporting is one about the Colorado River Delta. For this report, I traveled to Mexico to meet the chief of the Cucapa Indians and biologists studying rare marsh birds. This might sound like a remote issue, but it's not. It's about the water southern Californians use.  The story received a national award from the Society of Professional Journalists. Here's it is on YouTube.

The Colorado River helped build the Southwest and it sustains its economy. The river waters crops and fills bath tubs. It runs from the state of Colorado down to the southeast tip of California, and into Mexico. Before the US built massive dams across it, the river roared into Baja and Sonora, Mexico, creating vast wetlands, and flowed out to the Gulf of California. Today, the river rarely even reaches the gulf. But Mexicans hope to restore the river and it's delta--and they're looking to the US for help.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Cute and Scary

It Isn't Easy Being Green--or Amphibious

For the last month, my husband and I sewed our son a froggy Halloween costume. Doggedly we stitched--ripped--and re-stitched. We argued over the meaning of those "Simplicity" pattern instructions. But we did it, and felt proud.

As soon as I put it on him, he ripped the webbed-foot fabric off his Crocs (admittedly, my shortcut version of the pattern). He refused to wear the hood--the most froggy part of the costume. 

Nevertheless, we enjoy seeing him yellow-bellied. We have pet frogs (tiny toads, actually), and I love all things amphibious. For one, they're cute. And, two, these little guys are bellwethers of the health of our planet. As you probably guessed, what they're telling us isn't pretty. 

The Global Amphibian Assessment says nearly one-third of the world's amphibians are threatened with extinction. 129 may have gone extinct since 1980.  Habitat loss, disease, pollution, predation by nonnative species, and UV radiation are among the culprits
A recent study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) concluded climate change could wipe out more than half of all amphibians. 

But you can still enjoy learning about frogs.  Check out National Wildlife Federation's FrogWatch, Save The Frogs, AllAboutFrogs, and Jumping Frog Institute

Among my favorite local--and imperiled--amphibians is the Arroyo Toad. Here's my radio story:

A third of our planet’s amphibians are threatened with extinction.  In southern California, habitat loss and predation by non-native species has imperiled two of our frogs, a salamander, and the Arroyo Toad.  The toad has lost more than 75 percent of its habitat.  And, as KPCC’s Ilsa Setziol reports, it faces an uncertain future.

(sound of a creek)

SETZIOL: Just before sun down, in the Angeles National Forest, Little Rock Creek is darkening in the shadows of a steep canyon.  The fading amber light catches the creamy blossoms of tall yucca plants, making them glow like candles. 


SETZIOL: Biologist Ruben Ramirez crosses the creek.

RAMIREZ: In southern California generally you’re going to have 2 toads you’re going to see most often. The common western toad. And then the Arroyo Toad.

SETZIOL: Little Rock Creek is one of the few places where endangered Arroyo Toads survive.  Ramirez heads upstream a couple of miles, crisscrossing the creek … then sits down on a sandbar and waits. A halo of midnight blue spills over the top of the canyon.  The landscape looks like it’s been stilled by the night. 

(forest night sound fading up)

SETZIOL: But then, a few sounds crescendo into a chorus …

(sound of a chorus of frogs)

RAMIREZ: you’re hearing that two-note, that “grib-bit-grib-it” that’s a pacific tree frog. We’re also going to hear something that’s like “quack” “quack!!”that’s California tree frog.

(quack of tree frog in clear)

SETZIOL: Ramirez uses a flashlight to search out Arroyo Toads. He spots them by the way their eyes shine in the beam of light.  It’s not long before he picks up a two-inch toad about the color and texture of an oatmeal-raisin cookie. There’s something about this creature, with its soft round body, tiny toes and big, liquid eyes, that looks … very friendly.

RAMIREZ: Just a beautiful guy, isn’t he?

(toad call)

SETZIOL: Arroyo Toads spend their days buried in moist sand.  It’s only at night that the adults become active.

RAMIREZ: what he’s doing right now is a release call, because I’m compressing him a little bit on each side as though I’m basically trying to amplex him for breeding. He’s a male so he’s basically saying…get off me, I’m a male not a female. It’s a release call. 

(toad call)

SETZIOL: Amplexus is the technical term for toad nooky.

RAMIREZ: He’ll go down tonight and do some soaking. Definitely forage tonight, get some ants. …And I wouldn’t be surprised that he would find a nice spot and let of some advertisement calls tonight, just trying to get some female’s interest.

SETZIOL: Biologist Ruben Ramirez says when the creek starts to dry up, the toads will burrow deeper into the ground, and slip into a summer version of hibernation called estivation.  They’ll emerge again when it rains.  

(bird and creek sound)

SETZIOL: A hundred miles to the south, in the Los Padres National Forest, biologist Nancy Sandburg dips a small net into the water of Piru Creek.  Inch-long charcoal-colored tadpoles dart under a mat of algae.

(sloshing sound)

SANDBURG: I see a lot of western toad tadpoles 

SETZIOL: But Sandburg says this part of Piru Creek hasn’t been suitable for Arroyo Toads for years … not since the state started releasing water year-round from Pyramid reservoir upstream. That’s allowed a lot of vegetation, including cattails, to grow. 

SANDBURG: Cattails are very effective at collecting silts and what happens is it changes the river from a nice wide open stream bed to a very entrenched channel that’s deep, steep and much too fast a flow for arroyo toads to breed. 

SETZIOL: The extra summer water also supports non-native bullfrogs, which prey on Arroyo Toads.  To help the toads, the California Department of Water Resources is proposing to release water in a way that mimics natural cycles.  Recreational fishermen fear it will mean fewer hatchery and native rainbow trout. But federal biologists say the native fish should do just fine. 

Toad researcher Nancy Sandburg says the natives should be able to survive in tributaries and small pools.  But even with improvements at Piru Creek – She’s worried about the Arroyo Toad’s future.

SANDBURG: As I see it, no recovery efforts have been attempted yet…we’re still trying to prevent loss of existing habitat.

SETZIOL: Creed Clayton with the US Fish and Wildlife Service is more optimistic.  He says there are a number of small steps that could help toads quite a bit.  But there are limitations…

CLAYTON: The recovery plan identifies actions that should be taken to recover the species, but they’re not mandated to happen.  So federal agencies often will pay attention to what’s in a recovery plan and they’ll try to accomplish what they can. But on private lands, private landowner is not obligated to do what’s identified in the recovery plan. 

SETZIOL:This year, Fish and Wildlife sharply reduced the amount of land designated as “critical habitat” for the toads.  It’s in response to a lawsuit by the building industry.  That’s doesn’t necessarily mean more toad habitat will disappear … but Biologist Ruben Ramirez says reducing “critical habitat” does make it harder for the public to know when development is threatening the Arroyo Toad.  

With night settled in at the Angeles National Forest, Ramirez heads back downstream, when he hears a soft buzzing sound coming from the other side of Little Rock Creek.

(toad in clear)

It’s a male Arroyo Toad trying to attract a female. He’s positioned himself in the best place—just above the waterline--to broadcast his call.

RAMIREZ: What fascinates me is because I’ve studied them so long. Every year they continue to prove me wrong. In what I think they’re capable of. I find them moving up slopes where I didn’t’ think they could move.  At least it gives me hope that with a little proper management, we can help them rebound.

(Toad sound)

In the Angeles National Forest, Ilsa Setziol, 89.3, KPCC

(Toad sound)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Legg Laps

Biking Whittier Narrows
My son started riding on Daddy's bike when he was about 15-months-old. We knew he'd love it, because he's gaga over anything with wheels (that includes vacuum cleaners). Parks that used to be a car-ride away are now accessible by bike. Most of the time we just coast around the neighborhood. But a couple weeks ago we bought a bike rack, and we've begun to branch out. We recently enjoyed a Sunday afternoon pedaling around Legg Lake. Never heard of it? It's a supersized pond packed with waterfowl, both domestic and wild. It's a great spot for families. Flat trails rim the lake. There are ample picnic benches, even on crowded weekends. You can also rent bikes here, as well as pedal boats. Many families literally camp out. They bring tents, hammocks, barbeques, etc. My son enjoyed watching goose feathers drift in the wind. If your child even pedals a little, toss that trike in the car, too. She can ride with you--and on her own. Also pack a picnic blanket. Several ice cream/snack carts frequent the area.

This is a heavily used urban park, so don't expect it to be pristine. But Legg Lake is a nice place to relax and check out how other families have fun. Plus, just when I'd given up on spotting interesting birds, a pair of kingfishers zigzagged in front of me! Bring your binoculars.
Legg Lake
Whittier Narrows Recreation Area
Montebello/Pico Rivera

From the 10 or 60 Freeways, travel south on
Rosemead Blvd. Just south of the 60, look for the Legg Lake sign on your left. If this parking lot is full, continue north to another lot. Or get back on Rosemead, turn left on Durfee and park there. 

Whittier Narrows in the News
A controversy is boiling over a proposed, new discovery center. Currently, there's a very modest center. The San Gabriel River Discovery Center would educate the public--especially kids--about water resources and nature through interactive exhibits, and an artificial wetland. The $30-million project is backed by the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, water agencies, a local parks group called Amigos
de los Rios, and several local politicians. They say it would educate as many as 24,000 students a year, especially low-income kids. National Audubon Society board member Adan Ortega supports the project: "Nature centers are growing in their importance around the country as science-class resources in underprivileged communities. In many communities a visit to the nature center may be the only activity related to a science unit. As we ponder sustainability, we can't afford to skimp on the resources we make available for kids and families for learning the essential tools of our warmer world."

A group called Friends of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area opposes the project. They say it's too big, and would destroy rare habitat, including some a little bird called the least Bell's vireo needs. The group says the Discovery Center "would largely replace outdoor nature education with indoor oriented activity....Acres of habitat for endangered species would disappear under the football-field-long building." The project would also include a 150-space parking lot. This conflict mirrors the ongoing tension between some traditional (often white) environmentalists and a new breed of urban/Latino environmentalists. Here are two stories I reported for

A battalion of environmental groups in Los Angeles are active on everything from parks to pollution. But for decades, the membership of these groups has been overwhelming white. That’s starting to change. And Latinos here are forming their own environmental groups. It’s put the Los Angeles area at the forefront of a burgeoning Latino Environmental movement. KPCC’s Ilsa Setziol has the story.

(street sound and an ice cream truck)
SETZIOL: Late on a recent afternoon, an ice cream truck noses through a neighborhood of small homes. Winter winds have chased away the smog from much of southern California. But in the City of Commerce, the air still has the sickly-sweet smell and metallic taste of pollution. Sylvia Betancourt peers into the Union Pacific railyard.

BETANCOURT: This right now is a dirty smoking locomotive. In fact it’s the kind you want to report

SETZIOL: Betancourt heads East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.

BETANCOURT: That’s the kind of locomotive that will sit idling behind homes right in our neighborhood, and the only thing that separates that locomotive from these homes is a brick wall.

SETZIOL: Sylvia Betancourt is a UCLA graduate. She grew up here. And she still lives a block from this railyard. She suffers from occasional bouts of asthma.

BETANCOURT: As I was growing up, I always had this sense that there was something absolutely wrong with living near industry, but I couldn’t quite articulate what the problem was. And as I was growing up I was seeing a lot of people diagnosed with cancer. And as I saw them pass away, I felt there had to be something more than just a coincidence to all these deaths. 

SETZIOL: Betancourt is concerned about more than just this railyard, officially called an Intermodal Facility. There are also the diesel-spewing trucks that creep up the 710 freeway from the ports. They make thousands of trips a day to this yard and the nearby Burlington Northern Santa Fe facility. The trucks drop off cargo containers, for transfer to inland trains. Researchers say diesel pollution is the state’s worst toxic air pollutant—responsible for 70% of the cancer risk that can be attributed to pollution. Much of the burden falls on neighborhoods such as Betancourt’s.

BETANCOURT: It makes me feel marginalized, because I think there isn’t a recognition that there is a cost. There is a cost being paid by these communities that are on the fence line, and I feel angry.

SETZIOL: Some of Betancourt’s neighbors founded Eastyard Communities for Environmental Justice five years ago to try to clean up the area. The group has fought the expansion of the 710 Freeway, pushed for rules that limit the time locomotives can idle in a neighborhood, and advocated for cleaner ports and trucks.

In Wilmington, the Coalition for A Safe Environment is active on greening the ports. For more than a decade, Communities for A Better Environment has taken civic leaders on so-called Toxic Tours of industrial sites in Southeast LA. Roger Rivera says Latinos in Houston, New York, Chicago and other cities also realize they’ve been disproportionately saddled with pollution, and robbed of environmental benefits such as parks.

RIVERA: The emerging Latino environmental movement has its roots in the Latino civil rights movement. I see it as a natural progression from my community’s fight for a wide variety of civil rights in every area. In fact, we consider the environment to be the next civil rights issue and battle of the next decade.

SETZIOL: Rivera is president of the National Hispanic Environmental Council. He says Los Angeles at the center of that battle.

RIVERA: The wealth of Latino environmental action and accomplishment in California, especially LA, have been tremendous and is serving as a beacon to many Latinos in other parts of the country.

(sound of rail yard bell)
SETZIOL: In Commerce, Sylvia Betancourt turns from the Union Pacific yard to watch trucks chuffing down Atlantic Blvd. She says many of the houses along the road were here before the railyards and the freeway. Some people recall that part of the railyard was once a Japanese garden.

BETANCOURT: I think they’re very much aware that you wouldn’t find this kind of problem in Rancho Palos Verdes. You wouldn’t find this problem in Beverly Hills. Because that community wouldn’t stand for it. And so community members in neighborhoods like ours are saying, We’re not going to stand for it either.

SETZIOL: Latino community groups aren’t just rallying against environmental problems, they’re pushing for environmental benefits, and shaping the green movement in California. We’ll look at that, when our story continues, tomorrow.

In Commerce, Ilsa Setziol, 89.3, KPCC.

Many planners and environmentalists say Los Angeles is “park poor.” The city lags behind national guidelines for park acreage per capita. The shortage is worst in low income neighborhoods. It’s spurred many Latinos to advocate for parks and gardens…drawing them into the bustling Los Angeles environmental movement. KPCC’s Ilsa Setziol reports in the second part of our story on Latinos and the environment

SETZIOL: On the playground at 24th Street School, 10-year-old Anthony Hernandez kneels next to a slender mango tree. 

HERNANDEZ: And right here is a good place to calm down when you’re frustrated and all that, and you can come right here and chill with your friends, and just calm down right here in this beautiful sun and garden.

SETZIOL: Hernandez eagerly point out strawberry plants, basil, lettuce …and ladybugs and bees and butterflies.

HERNANDEZ: There’s one bee right there trying to get his food, his drink.

SETZIOL: A year ago, students, teachers and parents in this West Adams section of LA cut a big hole in the school’s asphalt and planted this willow-shaded garden. It was the brainchild of Emily Green, a garden writer who lives near the school.  To help make it happen, she turned to Adan Ortega. Ortega is active prominent environmental groups, including the National Audubon Society. It was a project he couldn’t refuse.

ORTEGA: I attended Mariana elementary school in East LA, where we had nothing but blacktop. It made for plenty of bruised and scrapped knees. It’s difficult to recreate in places like this. And schools like this--schools like I went to--are right next to freeways. And so air quality has been an issue, and I’m asthmatic. 

SETZIOL: Adan Ortega says, if the Trust for Public Land can come up with the money,  24th Street School will eventually start another garden, a teaching kitchen, and new trees to block out some of the noise and pollution from the 10 Freeway. Ortega says this kind of environmental issue  resonates with Latinos.

ORTEGA: We want to interrelate with the open space through a garden that produces agricultural bounty, or a garden you can actually play in. Whereas to the traditional environmental community, open space means wildlife, habitat, and hiking trails. This is not to say that we don’t value those things.  

SETZIOL: But as Latinos become more vocal about their ideas, they’re crossing swords with members of traditional environmental groups. There’s been a lot of tension over new parks near the LA River. 

Latinos rallied to block development on land that is now Los Angeles State Historic Park. Some felt betrayed when the state declined to build soccer fields on the site. Ultimately, park officials added fields to another park, Rio de Los Angeles State Park, or Taylor Yard as it’s known. Activist Irma Munoz says some white environmentalists want only habitat and hiking trails along the river.

MUNOZ: I’ve been in meetings--city-held meetings--where people have gotten up and said, "We do not want active recreation any more, they’ve got their Taylor yard" And it’s because a lot of them don’t have little kids any more.

SETZIOL: Old-line environmental groups in LA have hired more Latinos in recent years, but their membership remains largely white. Audubon Society board member Adan Ortega: 

ORTEGA: A lot of what happens with traditional groups like the ones I belong to is we become very concerned with convincing people that we’re right, rather than engaging them and improving the quality of life, and letting people draw their own conclusions.

MUNOZ: They’ve got to change they way they're doing business; they have to change the way they analyze their priorities.

SETZIOL: Irma Munoz.

MUNOZ: before they had, I guess the luxury of making those decisions for everyone, but people aren’t allowing it anymore.
SETZIOL: To help Latinos set their own environmental agendas, Munoz founded Mujeres de la Tierra, Women of the Earth. She helps Latinas start autonomous chapters to work on family-oriented environmental issues.

MUNOZ: Because if you address the critical issues of children, you improve the neighborhood and eventually the community overall gets improved.

SETZIOL: So far, there are 7 Mujeres chapters in the LA area, including El Monte, Pasadena, and El Sereno. Munoz says some traditional environmental groups ARE helping her organization. And Latino community groups are finding formidable allies in the state’s Latino elected officials. Roger Rivera of the National Hispanic Environmental Council:
RIVERA: I think the green groups are waking up to the fact, that in order to pass environmental legislation in California, it’s going to require a real substantive partnership with the Latino community.

SETZIOL: Rivera says from park and water bonds to the state’s landmark greenhouse gas bill, Latino voters and politicians are shaping the future of California’s environment. 

In West Adams, Ilsa Setziol, 89.3, KPCC