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

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Pint of Prevention

This is National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week

Do you live in an older home? Thinking of renovating? It's important to do it carefully. Dust and chips from old (pre-1978) paint are a serious threat to little kids. LA County director of public health Jonathan Fielding says, "Most children with high lead levels do not look or act sick, but they can suffer long-term health consequences" if parents aren't careful. High levels of lead can cause learning and behavioral problems.

Children living in (older) homes being remodeled are especially vulnerable. The biggest concern is for little kids, because they often put their hands in their mouths. My family lives in an older home. So we keep an eye on chipping paint, and vacuum and mop weekly. Families living in older homes should also wash kids' hands frequently, and pay particular attention to doorways, windows, and other places paint tends to wear away. A pediatrician can check your child for lead with a blood test. 

You can get more information through LA County's lead poisoning prevention hotline 1-800-LA-4-LEAD.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"Sun, Run Away"

Three Days in Huntington Beach

Last weekend, my 18-month-old saw his first sunset. We were munching muffins by an outdoor fire at the Huntington Beach Hyatt. Pointing at the red orb melting into the horizon, I said, "The sun is going down. It will come back up tomorrow." My son commented, "Sun, run away!" The three-day weekend was also my son's first toddle on a southern California beach. He'd already dug his little shovel into beaches in Oregon and northern California. But I'd shied away from hauling him across LA--on the 10 Freeway--to a beach here. I'd no sooner get there, I thought, than I'd have to race back for nap- or bedtime. So I planned three (off-season) days on the OC coast.

You might enjoy the itinerary below for a local mini-vacation. Rooms at the Hyatt are reasonably priced for a posh, beachfront resort ($215 a night). But be forewarned, Hyatt reaches deep into your pocket for everything else: $25-a-night parking, $9.95-an-hour internet, etc.

Day One
AM: Bike the beach. We pedaled to the pier for a good look at the surfers below. On a small lawn at the pier plaza, my son, Mateo, ran around with other kids. He was also interested in the volleyball players, dogs, rollerbladers, etc. 

There are a couple of places to rent bikes just south of the Huntington Beach Pier. You can also get them the Hyatt. All of these shops have bikes with kid seats.

PM: Cruise around Newport Bay. Another first for the baby: We boarded a Fun Zone Boat Co craft ($14, $7, under 5 free), and putted around the harbor, peering at luxurious homes and lolling sea lions.  Back on shore, Mateo rode the merry-go-round in the Fun Zone amusement area. After selecting a few shells, we dinned on balcony at a dockside restaurant.

In Newport, you can also hop on a whale-watching boat (June-October) or rent a Duffy (electric) boat and tool around yourself. Whale- watching trips last three hours, so I don't recommend them for the wee-ones or the weak-stomached.

Day 2 (Planned)
Fun with floaty toys in the big swimming pool. Then hang at the beach.

Day 2 (Actual)
Strong winds blew a hole in our plans, so...

AM: Swimming in the Jacuzzi! At 18-months it's all swimming to our son. And kids aren't barred from the ones at the HB Hyatt. (Be careful not to let a small child stay in a hot tub too long, especially if it's truly hot.) This resort also offers many pretty pathways and nooks that are fun to explore, as well as exuberant fountains, fireplaces, and small lawns.

PM: After a near-record, 3-hour nap for the boys (and some "book in a nook" for mom), we lit out for the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana. Mateo was mesmerized by small balls swirling in a gravity well, but the real fun here is for older kids.

We returned to HB for dinner--and another runaway sun--at Duke's on the beach.

Day 2.5
At last, sandcastles and wave running. I was pleased to see there were probably more birds than people on the beach (on a weekday morning). I focused my binos on a flock of terns resting at the water's edge. The sea was a brilliant, endless blue.

After checking out, we drove a few miles north on Pacific Coast Highway to the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. I'd covered the restoration of this marsh as a reporter, and wanted to see how it looked two years after tidal flow had returned to the area. A variety of marsh- and shorebirds were sheltering near the foot bridge. Brown pelicans plunged out of the sky, scooping up fish. It was close enough--and the birds big enough--for a baby to get a good look. Our son has been talking about "birds fish" ever since.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

So Close and Yet So Far Away


This dudleya is one of the many gorgeous blooms you can see in Stough Canyon in the spring. The nearby nature center makes this a sweet destination. But I wouldn’t hike this with little kids, simply because the trail is so steep. It’s also quite hot in summer. However, after huffing and puffing up the big hill, you’re rewarded with good views of Burbank and the Verdugo Mountains. I’ve trekked here a couple of times in spring with botanist Ileene Anderson. We say nearly a hundred species of wildflowers, including wooly bluecurls;6-foot-tall scarlet delphiniums; caterpillar phacelia (they have curved, fuzzy, purple flowers); golden-back ferns; bright red members of the carnation family called "Indian pinks"; elegant clarkia, monkey flower, and California sunflower (encelia).

Stough Canyon Nature Center: 2300 Walnut Avenue, Burbank

From the 5 Freeway, exit Magnolia Blvd. Turn right on Magnolia (heading toward the hills). Turn left on Sunset Canyon, then right on Walnut Avenue. Follow Walnut until it ends at the nature center. The trail is to the left of the center.

On one of our hikes here botanist Ileene Anderson said, “I’d really love for everyone in California to recognize that we don’t have to go to a rainforest to find biodiversity, you simply have to get out into California open space, and you can have the same experience.”

We stopped to listen to a towhee twitter. She reminded me, “If it wasn’t for plants none of the rest of us would be here, because [we can’t] capture the energy of the sun and turn that into carbon-based living materials, which are the food that everything else eats. If it wasn’t for plants, there wouldn’t be any oxygen in our atmosphere. Their generosity is the reason we can live here. So I have great respect for them.”

I asked her if rare plants have the same legal protection that endangered animals do. She shook her head. “Unfortunately, they don’t. Under the state and federal endangered species acts, plants are what I consider second-class citizens. If a development is going to wipe out all the plants on a site, and it doesn’t jeopardize the plant to the point of extinction, then there’s really nothing the [wildlife officials] can do about that.”

For more on native plants, check out my Southland Ecology and Gardening posts.

Recommended reading: California Native Plants for the Garden by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O’Brien.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Gimme Shelter

Many Mammals at Risk of Extinction

A report out this week finds almost one in four of the Earth’s mammals are in danger of extinction. The study was conducted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an organization of governments, NGOs and scientists.

Julia Marton-Lefevre, Director General of IUCN says, “Within our lifetime hundreds of species could be lost as a result of our actions….”

IUCN says forty percent of the planet’s mammals are struggling to survive in smaller and degraded habitats.

In California, we have a lot of animal species that don’t live anywhere else … and many of them are also on the edge of extinction. That includes sea otters, red-legged frogs, desert tortoises, San Joaquin kit foxes, peninsular big horn sheep, southern steelhead trout … to name a few. And it includes an animal beloved by visitors to the Channel Islands. Here's my report.

SETZIOL: On a crisp winter afternoon, biologist Mitchell Dennis and colleagues with the National Park Service hop on an eight-seat plane headed for San Miguel Island … home to one of the world’s rarest animals … :

(sound of plane putting down runway)
DENNIS: We have a release going on today. We’ve caught them this morning in their pens and we’re going to fly across the island and release them.
SETZIOL: so these animals aren’t found anywhere else in the world?
DENNIS: No. Nowhere else…

(plane in air)

SETZIOL: As we leave the Ventura coast, we see the four northern Channel Islands rising out of the sea … blue-black, and backlit by a swath of sunlit sea, shimmering platinum and gold. San Miguel looms on the horizon, ringed by fog.

(sound of plane bumping down)

SETZIOL: When we get to Miguel …

(sound of plane bumping down)

SETZIOL: We pick up additional passengers: four little foxes, each about the size of a house cat. They’ve been part of a captive breeding program trying to keep Island Foxes from going extinct.
(location sound of)
SETZIOL: So they look a bit like the mainland grey fox.
DENNIS: they do, they’re about 40% smaller

SETZIOL: The tawny and gray foxes are curled up in portable kennels. They’re silent and motionless, but their eyes are wide open and alert. The biologists put on them on the plane for a short flight to the other side of the island.

(plane sound underneath, then fading out)

SETZIOL: Island foxes live on six of the Channel Islands. Each island has a genetically distinct subspecies of the dainty fox. Ten years ago, the foxes on the northern Channel Islands began to die off rapidly.

The problem??? Feral pigs left over from ranching days attracted golden eagles to Santa Cruz Island. The eagles feasted on an abundant supply of piglets, and evidently found the foxes to be a satisfactory hors d’oeuvre. And the foxes were sitting ducks, so to speak, because they weren’t accustomed to being preyed upon. Biologist Rosie Woodroffe is one of a team of scientists advising the park service on fox recovery.

WOODROFFE: Most animals active in the day are constantly looking for predators, looking up. Foxes are not that vigilant because they spent thousands of years not needing to be vigilant. When you’ve got an animal with no anti-predator behavior at all-there’s very little you can do to convince them to look up!

SETZIOL: On the northwest side of San Miguel Island, the biologists unload the foxes. Then Mitchell Dennis and Debbie Watson listen to beeps transmitted from radio collars around their necks.

(sound of beeping)

DENNIS: that’s the mortality mode on her collar.
WATSON: It’s not supposed to do that.
DENNIS: Shake the collar, but you really can’t shake the fox, though.

SETZIOL: They decide to replace the broken collar.

DENNIS: Hi, sweetie.
WATSON: I’ve got a bandanna
DENNIS: Calms them down to have a bandanna over their face.

SETZIOL: Dennis says the Park Service has been capturing and relocating golden eagles … and it’s hired hunters to kill the feral pigs. So it’s safe enough to put some foxes back into the wild.

DENNIS: And they just do better in the wild. We had 4 females and 6 males released last year, and those 4 females produced at least 9 pups. All of our captive pens where we had 40 to 50 foxes, but we only had 8 pups between all of them.

SETZIOL: But a few--maybe 4--eagles have evaded capture and are still snacking on foxes. Last year, they killed 11. Biologist Rosie Woodroffe.

WOODROFFE: It’s true golden eagles haven’t been seen on San Miguel, but they have in the last few months killed at least one fox on Santa Rosa Island, which is a stone’s throw away. And it only takes one eagle to decide to fly over to San Miguel for a few days and they could take out the whole released population on San Miguel. It’s still on a knife edge whether the foxes will survive in the wild.

SETZIOL: Woodroffe says the park service should at least consider killing some eagles if they continue to evade capture and feed on foxes. But it’s not clear if killing the birds would be easier or cheaper, and it would certainly spark outrage from animal rights groups.

So to ensure the survival of the species, some foxes will remain in captivity. This year, the biologists will let them choose their mates, instead of pairing them by their genetics.

(sound of kennel opening)
WATSON: Ready?
DENNIS: yep.

SETZIOL: With all the collars working, Debbie Watson and Mitchell Dennis, open the kennels. And the captive-born foxes take their first steps into the wild.

WATSON: He’s heading off towards point Bennett!
SETZIOL: running!
DENNIS: Furthest he’s ever run in a straight line. (laughing)

SETZIOL: Three of the foxes bound out of sight. But a young female ventures only a few feet, then hunkers down in the grass looking a bit stunned … and uncertain.

From Channel Islands National Park, Ilsa Setziol, 89.3, KPCC.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


Southern California a Hotspot of Biodiversity

One of the things I most enjoy about reporting on the environment is learning about the natural world. To bend over a flower with a botanist who points out the nectar guide—a structure or marking some flowers have evolved to draw in pollinators. If you’re curious about local landscapes, check out these stories. Then you can impress friends with such offhand comments as, "Well, southern California IS one of only five places in the world with a Mediterranean climate.” You might want to have an idea what a Mediterranean climate is, so read on….

Our Mediterranean Plants

The modest shrubs and small plants that dominate our local natural landscapes may not look all that impressive when you whiz by on the road, but southern California is one of the world’s hotspots of biodiversity. In the first of two reports, KPCC’s Ilsa Setziol introduces us to some of the unique plants that have evolved in our uncommon climate.

(sound of creek)

SETZIOL: On a late spring morning in the Santa Monica Mountains, a small creek weaves through slanting sycamores and wispy-leaved willows. Nearby, botanist Phil Rundel strolls along a hillside dappled with wildflowers, twisted oaks, and delicate-flowered shrubs. He stops to point out a spurt of bluish purple blossoms.

RUNDEL: Those are delphiniums. There’s two native delphiniums….this one comes up in grasslands every year.
SETZIOL: It looks like the kind you find in the nursery, just with a slimmer stalk and smaller flowers--
RUNDEL: yeah, just a little less robust, ..probably one in nurseries are just bred from these.

SETZIOL: The delphinium, like many of our native plants, is only found in southwestern California.

(sound of bee buzz)

SETZIOL: Around the bend, a rotund black bee is sampling the tiered blooms of a white and magenta flower called Chinese Houses.

Rundel bends over a neighboring plant: an orange-flowered bush called Sticky Monkey flower.

RUNDEL: Bees and birds both pollinate that. Flowers like this you can see they’re really designed more for bees, though, because they have a landing strip… these markings on the lower lips of the flower are kind of like a landing strip for bees come in.

SETZIOL: Rundel is walking in UCLA’s 300-acre preserve called Stunt Ranch. It’s one of the places where he researches the world’s Mediterranean ecosystems. These are five areas of the planet that sit at about the same latitude and have similar climates: mild, wet winters and warm, dry summers. They are: of course, the actual Mediterranean basin; central Chile; the cape region of South Africa; southwestern Australia; and ….California—with the exception of our deserts. Rundel says conservation biologists have singled out these areas as crucial for preserving the world’s biodiversity.

RUNDEL: Only about 2 percent of the world has this kind of climate regime…it’s one that attracts a lot of us…but as a result, they’re some of the most threatened areas ecologically in the world because of population growth, urbanization, clearing of native habitats. We worry about rainforests and rainforests are clearly worth saving, but this 2% of the land area of Mediterranean climates has 20% of the plant species of the world.

SETZIOL: Botanist Phil Rundel says because the plants in these areas have evolved to survive in similar climates, many of them share similar traits: for example, California’s evergreen shrubs like Manzanita and Toyon resemble Mediterranean olive and strawberry trees.

RUNDEL: being an evergreen shrub with leathery leaves is a good solution to living in these environments and that’s what the dominant species are, particularly where water is limited. Their leaves don’t lose moisture very readily so they’re here all year round. In the summer they hunker down and if it’s cool they can start growing again.

SETZIOL: These plants take advantage of the mild climate, photosynthesizing year-round. And their tough leaves help them fend off herbivores … plant-eating animals. These shrubby, evergreen plant communities in southern California are called Chaparral. Our other Mediterranean shrub community—called sage scrub—is even rarer. About 80% of the coastal variety of sage scrub has been lost.

Because everybody loves living on the coast.

Ileene Anderson is a botanist with the California Native Plant Society.

ANDERSON: It’s made up of plants that usually have very small leaves. It’s often called soft chaparral because it’s smaller and easier to walk through than true chaparral. It’s also seasonal… loses its leaves during the summertime when resources are really limited…waiting out the drought, for fall rains to grow again.

SETZIOL: Anderson is hiking a section of the Verdugo Mountains, near Burbank, where sage scrub and Chaparral intermingle—the sage scrub dominating in the hotter, drier places. At the top of a steep hill, she’s greeted by a minty and lemony smell.

ANDERSON: (out of breath) This is black sage, salvia melifera…another key component of coastal sage scrub. Little petite purple flowers… the different sages have different smells. To me that is the classic California smell, it’s a pungent aromatic, wonderful scent…

SETZIOL: Nearby, a plant called wooly blue curls--because of the velvety bracts at the base of its chiffon-blue flowers—emits a perfume that mingles mint with hints of pine. Many plants from the Mediterranean basin—rosemary, lavender, thyme—are similarly aromatic. It’s a way plants in both places repel grazing animals; and makes them great companions in southern California gardens.

But some plants from the Mediterranean basin have become unwelcome guests here. They’ve taken up permanent residence and are threatening our native plant communities.

JON KEELEY I can easily picture in the next several decades southern California looking like the Kona coast of Hawaii, where you almost can’t find a native plant anywhere on that landscape.

SETZIOL: That’s our story tomorrow.

Ilsa Setziol, 89.3, KPCC.

Native Plants Threatened by Invaders, Fire

You can’t help but notice: whole canyons, entire hillsides that used to house communities of plants and animals are now budding with new homes for… humans. Less obvious, though, is another threat to our natural communities: innocuous looking foreign plants that—with human help—have the potential to radically change our rare ecosystems. KPCC’s Ilsa Setziol explains in our second report on southern California’s natural landscapes.

(Sound of bird)

SETZIOL: Stough Canyon in the Verdugo Mountains is a marvelous place to gaze at native plants. In a couple of hours of hiking on a May or June day, you can easily see about 100 species: 6-foot-tall scarlet delphiniums; caterpillar phacelia with curved, fuzzy purple heads; golden back ferns; holly leaf cherries; bright red members of the carnation family called “Indian pinks” …. and much more.

Botanist Ileene Anderson recently trekked up a fire road into the canyon. The hillsides were also covered with a deep pink flower that has four slender, diamond-shaped petals.

ANDERSON: This is an annual. It’s called elegant clarkia. It’s one of our later spring wildflowers, and it’s quite showy. These are 2-3 feet here but they can get substantially taller. They’re glorious, easy to grow in the garden, loved by a variety of insects, animals, etc.

SETZIOL: The tapestry of blooms exhilarates Anderson. But she also sees some plants she doesn’t welcome: she points at a gangly one with lemon-yellow flowers.

ANDERSON: This yellow mustard is of European origin and has spread to California. The story goes that when the Spanish were colonizing California they spread mustard seeds between the missions so they could find their way … by following El Camino Real, the mustard road. It’s done very well here, it’s suited to these conditions and has spread everywhere.

SETZIOL: The mustard is one of a suite of plants from the Mediterranean basin that has tagged along with people and livestock, and found our similar climate to be quite hospitable.

Alongside the fire road, Anderson points out other plants that are all-too-cozy in California:

ANDERSON: We see a patch up here of Mediterranean grasses of different sorts. And they have basically taken over all our native grasslands now. So native grasslands in California are a very rare plant community.

SETZIOL: UCLA botanist Phil Rundel says these alien plants—and others like the water-hogging, giant cane called arrundo—can do a lot of damage.

RUNDEL: Invasive species have dramatic potential to change fire frequencies, fire intensities, they can change nutrient levels, they can crowd out natives and change ecosystem function, change hydrologic flow in streams, a variety of impacts that have huge economic damage. Billions and billions of dollars in the US alone.

SETZIOL: One reason why some of these invaders do so well here in California is because the pathogens and predators they evolved with in their homeland are back there … not here.

Phil Rundel says some countries—places with similar climates, like South Africa—take aggressive steps to control invasives, essentially treating them like hazardous waste. But so far in California…

RUNDEL: There’s very little regulation. The state now has a few things they ask nurseries not to sell. There are state agencies that have lists of invasives we’re trying to control. Part of the problem is public education. People aren’t aware what’s dangerous and what’s not.

SETZIOL: Rundel says sometimes, alien plants don’t become invasive right away. They hang around benignly for several decades … then suddenly become aggressive - perhaps because the right pollinator or seed-disperser comes along to help them out.

The number of alien plants making their way to California is likely to climb as global trade and travel increases. But research scientist Jon Keeley of the U.S. Geological Survey says the plants that are already here are more than capable of wreaking havoc.

KEELEY: And the primary driver that affects that transition from native to non-native vegetation is fire…I see it just about every time I drive to southern California, I see a new portion of the landscape that seems to be on its way to being converted to alien grasslands, simply because as the urban development expands, we find that more and more fires are ignited at the most inopportune times for putting them out.

SETZIOL: Keeley says, yes, Southern California plant communities evolved with fire, but the shrub-dominated areas surrounding cities didn’t used to burn as frequently as they do now. Blame people for that.

KEELEY: If you put too many fires in the landscape, say for example two in five years, those plants don’t have enough time to recover … and as a result, alien species are able to invade and the reason they can invade is they’re a very different life form. The natives are a woody life form that takes a long time to recover, the alien plants are annuals that come in and can regenerate very, very quickly, produce seeds and withstand repeat fires.

SETZIOL: And that doesn’t bode well for all the animals that rely on native plants for food and shelter.

There’s a bit of good news in the face of this daunting problem: Jon Keeley of the USGS thinks federal land managers with the park and forest services are very aware of the problem .

Climbing up Stough Canyon, botanist Ileene Anderson arrives at a plateau thick with California buckwheats, blooming orbs of white flowers.

ANDERSON: The rain has definitely contributed to more blooms in general. This year, all the perennial shrubs have really benefited from the rain.

SETZIOL: But while the native plants thrive, their alien rivals - mustard, Mediterranean grasses and others - are also doing well … ready to take over when the next fire comes.

Ilsa Setziol, 89.3, KPCC.

Recommended Reading: Introduction to The Plant Life of Southern California: Coast to Foothills, Phillip Rundel and Robert Gustafson

Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, Michael Pollan. This is not about local plants, but an interesting look at our relationship to four domesticated plants.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

"Gee Gah Go"

I’m not much of a shopper, but I enjoyed preparing for our son’s birth. I snatched up onesies embroidered with frogs and turtles, blankets dotted with duckies, books about jungles and gardens, and lots of stuffed animals. I diligently, but unenthusiastically, drug home a couple of toy cars. Living in the nation's smog capitol, it's hard for me to be enthusiastic about cars and trucks. Despite a new generation of cleaner cars, vehicles--especially trucks and other diesel burners--are the main culprit.

A year and a half later, my home looks like the East LA interchange. Dump trucks roam the

hallway, a cement mixer cruises the kitchen, a school bus bleats the ABC song even after a plunge in the tub (drat!). Among my son’s first and most passionately uttered words were “tash tuck,” “backhoe,” “’cool bus,” and “gee gah go.” Gee gah go—Things That Go—is the subtitle of several books for boys with this fixation. I’m now familiar with such classics as Good Morning, Digger. My son would be content to stand on a busy street corner for hours—if I’d let him.

The problem is: busy streets are not good places for kids—or grown ups—to spend a lot of time. Some of the highest levels of pollution in our region are found on/near freeways, and roads with a lot of traffic. In this blog, I’ve talked about baby products that might be problematic, but air pollution is a known and well studied
hazard. And it’s the only thing—that I know of—in your baby’s environment that doesn’t meet federal or state health standards. Yes, LA is not as smoggy as it used to be, but so far this year the region has had more than 95 days when the air didn’t meet health standards for ozone. You probably know that a lot of pollutants blow inland and coalesce in places like Riverside, but parts of LA County still have problems, too. For more than a decade, USC researchers have studied kids who live with peak pollution. They found these children are five times more likely to have poor lung function. So when they come down with respiratory illnesses such as a cold, it can be harder for these kids to recover. Low lung function also has long-term consequences; it's a significant risk factor for all causes of mortality. UC Irvine researcher Michael Kleinman says weak lungs can lead to cardiovascular trouble: "The heart and the brain are two organs that cannot tolerate low oxygen supply. So when the heart receives blood with less oxygen, the heart has to work harder. It’s got to pump more blood to deliver the same amount of oxygen to all the other tissues. " Air pollution also exacerbates asthma. One state study suggests kids who live near busy roads are more likely to get asthma than kids who don't.

So you might be feeling helpless: “I can’t do anything about the air!”
Actually, you can. Here are a few ideas:
  • Drive a cleaner car. Many organizations have ranked them.

  • Let leaves RIP: leaf litter is good for your soil, so stop blowing them and cut pollution. Air quality officials say the average leaf blower emits as much pollution in one year as 80 new cars. Also, make your next lawnmower electric.

  • Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: much of the air pollution in our region spews from ships, trains and trucks hauling goods from the ports.

  • Take walks on less-trafficked streets

  • Limit the time your child is on the freeway: hitting the recirculation button on your car doesn't keep pollution out.
  • Don’t have your child exercise near freeways or roads with a lot of traffic.

  • Report smoking vehicles: call 800-CUT-SMOG

  • For more information, check out this transcript of the first two parts of my radio story on schools that are too close to freeways.

    An Education in Pollution

    Just sit by an LA freeway for a few minutes and watch hundreds of cars and trucks roll past … and you’ll understand why there’s a growing body of research that suggests the concentrated air pollution from a busy thoroughfare can be hazardous to your health. That’s why in 2003, California passed a law to restrict school construction along busy freeways or roads … but that doesn’t do much for the hundreds of schools already built there. KPCC’s Ilsa Setziol this week explores what can be done. Here’s the first installment in her three-part series:

    (sound of kids and roads)

    SETZIOL: At Edison Elementary in Long Beach, school is out early. Kids are playing tetherball and kicking around soccer balls. Parent Evangelina Ramirez has just picked up her eight-year-old daughter, Lorena. Ramirez says, in many ways she’s pleased with the school.

    RAMIREZ: It’s a good school. They have wonderful things they do for the kids.

    SETZIOL: But she says,

    RAMIREZ: The only problem is between the exit and the –I don’t know how you say it, la salida and la entrada from the freeway.
    SETZIOL: entry and exit from the freeway.
    RAMIREZ: Yes. Entry and exit.

    SETZIOL: It’s the 710 Freeway … with busy on-and off-ramps right next to Edison playground … and that worries Ramirez. She’s a volunteer with the Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma, and she’s heard that air pollution next to freeways and busy roads can be four to ten times worse than background levels. And he daughter Lorena--a sweet-faced girl with shy eyes and a toothy smile--has asthma.

    LORENA: when cars are passing…I feel a big wad in my stomach and I can’t breath. It’s like hitting the wad and it doesn’t let the air come out.

    SETZIOL: Asthma isn’t just a health problem. It’s an education problem. When a youngster like Lorena Ramirez can’t catch her breath, she often can’t make it to school either … and kids who miss school don’t do as well in class or on standardized tests.

    Dr. Rob McConnell at USC’s Keck School of Medicine studies respiratory diseases in children. More asthma at schools near busy roads is one air pollution problem, but Dr. McConnell says it’s not the only one … :

    MCCONNELL: There’s also some suggestion that these local concentrations right around roadways may also impair the level of function of the lungs.

    SETZIOL: That’s important because poor lung function leaves people vulnerable to emphysema and lung disease later in life. And the state Air Resources Board says proximity to freeways--especially those heavy with trucks--increases a person’s cancer risk.

    The Long Beach Unified School District says, while it hasn’t monitored pollution at Edison Elementary, it has studied it at a school site it believes to be in a comparable location … and hasn’t found a problem. But the Alliance for Children with Asthma has done its own monitoring at the school and found elevated levels of pollution. To know for sure, more testing is needed.

    RAMIREZ: Evangelina Ramirez – Lorena’s mom - says many Spanish-speaking parents don’t even know their kids are having symptoms of asthma.

    RAMIREZ: We want to receive more help with kids who have problems and don’t have insurance. We need health for everybody in the community. We cannot fix the whole problem, but we can do something together and we can make changes together.

    RAMIREZ: That’s the challenge at Edison Elementary. It’s the same challenge faced by parents at more than 200 schools in Los Angeles. We’ll look at story tomorrow.

    Ilsa Setziol … 89-point-3 …KPCC.


    There’s a growing body of research that underscores the health hazards from living, working or going to school near a busy freeway or major road. The hazard is from air pollution … but how much of a hazard isn’t clear. The answer is important to school districts with campuses along major thoroughfares. They have to decide whether to spend millions for new air filtering systems so kids can breathe a little easier. In part two of our series on schools and freeways, KPCC’s Ilsa Setziol looks at how LA schools are trying to clear the air:
    (sound of loud roads)

    SETZIOL: One of the busiest freeway intersections in LA County is the East LA Interchange. It’s where the 60, 10, and 5 merge near Soto Street. It’s also the location of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Soto Street School. Margarita Sanchez sends her daughter Meli here.

    SANCHEZ: We have increasing amounts of down times because of flus and coughs and colds that are exacerbated by the pollution. It makes us more susceptible and less immune.

    SETZIOL: The State Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment - or OEHHA - has mapped California schools near busy roadways. OEHHA defined “near” as 150 meters from a road or a freeway … which is about 500 feet. Bart Ostro is chief of OEHHA’s air pollution epidemiology unit.

    OSTRO: Roughly 7% of all the schools—and school children—are exposed to 25,000 vehicles a day or more. And there’s nothing sacrosanct about 25,000, but there are some studies that indicate that that’s a bright line that above that level you start to see effects related to traffic exposure.

    SETZIOL: More than 200 LAUSD campuses – including Soto Street School – are on that list. That’s about 30-percent of LAUSD’s K-through-12 schools. However, it’s important to note that what counts is being DOWNWIND of a busy roadway. A school could be smack dab next to a freeway and not have a problem—if it’s upwind. So it’s not clear how many of the schools statewide might be stuck in a pocket of polluted air. But the OEHHA did study Bay Area kids who go to schools downwind of freeways vs. those that don’t.

    OSTRO: We found higher rates of asthma and bronchitis in children attending schools near high traffic areas. We caution to say that this doesn’t mean the exposures only occur at the school or during school time.

    SETZIOL: LAUSD recently began studying pollution sources near its schools. It started with industrial facilities and will soon survey roadways. Angelo Bellomo is director for environmental health and safety. He says they’ve already asked local air officials to study the health risks of their campuses near industries.

    BELLOMO: We need Caltrans and the transportation authorities to do the same thing with regard to transportation corridors in proximity to schools.

    SETZIOL: Bellomo wants more data before the school district considers mitigation measures, like upgrading air conditioning systems at the schools. He thinks the additional information will be required to convince lawmakers to come up with money for the problem. But a school district near LAX isn’t waiting. Administrators there are moving ahead improve the air in their classrooms. That’s our story tomorrow.

    Ilsa Setziol … 89-point-3 … KPCC.