The State We Have Lost

Published on March 20th, 2012

“You are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Discourse on Inequality

From naturalist John Muir, whose love of nature helped save many of California’s unique wilderness areas, to U.S. President and conservationist Teddy Roosevelt, who doubled the number of national parks, America’s natural wonders – and consequently future generations – have benefited by a few visionaries.

Nonetheless, the relentless heavy foot of development and unsustainable growth has stomped on – all around the few set-asides in the United States from the east to west coasts and from the northern to southern borders. As we go about ever-increasingly busy lives in complex urban settings with buildings of many stories and miles upon miles of concrete where the natural world seems more on the margin, it’s good to take a look at what was, versus what our reality is now, for some perspective to guide us on where we want to go.

“Historical Ecology of the Ballona Creek Watershed,” a recent report produced by the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP), gives a detailed view of the complexity and range of biodiversity that Southern California’s wetland ecosystems offered. The area studied – the Ballona Creek Watershed – is what is now Baldwin Hills, Beverly Hills, Inglewood, South Los Angeles and much of West Los Angeles, and home to about 1.2 million people.

The authors of the 75-page study were able to reconstruct what the L.A. Basin looked like before hordes of people descended on the area by researching a number of source materials, including maps, photos, land surveys and various other archival materials, from more than 80 organizations.

Their research uncovers lost habitats and identifies the flora and fauna that were in the area, explaining how broad shallow aquifers supported alkali flats and meadows, and wetlands. While we think of Los Angeles, prior to being citified, as being desert, the research shows, in addition to meadows and wetlands, there were grassy prairies, oak woodlands, scrub and dense willow thicket. In reading the report, but particularly looking at the images, it’s impossible to not be awestruck by how much, and how quickly, an expanding population can dramatically transform a landscape.

While the authors summarize that it would be unrealistic to think that any of the prior natural systems could be restored to what they had been in what is now an urbanized development, they believe the historical understanding of the area can be helpful in contemporary approaches to managing the landscape and in discussions of where parcels of original wetlands can be restored and how.

For an overview of the SCCWRP report, read Nathan Master’s “The Lost Wetlands of Los Angeles” at KCET’s website.

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