In the midst of overdeveloped Greater Los Angeles, exists a stretch of the San Gabriel River in
the last 40 miles from the San Gabriel Mountains to the ocean. It passes through the Whittier Narrows Natural Area, The Natural Area has
over 300 species of birds, two Endangered, others Threatened and of Special Concern. It was described by a local woman whose family did
not travel for vacations as, “My Yosemite.” A young local man said when he visited, he was in awe to see more than one tree together like a
forest. Before that, he had only seen a tree in a person’s yard. Local people had grown up visiting this little piece of natural area, open space,
with their families. The location has hosted innumerable field trips for schools and groups like Boy Scouts. It is the location of Mexican American history.
It is the first Audubon center west of the Mississippi. The core area was set aside by the National Audubon Society as a preserve in 1939. It is an outdoor
classroom for flora and fauna. Finally, the Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians Kizh Nation calls it their historical sacred land.
In the fall of 2006, Grace Allen, president of the Whittier Narrows Nature Center Associates (Associates), the volunteer group at the nature center and natural
area, alerted others about a multi-government agency, The San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority (DC). They were planning to demolish the Nature Center and
replace it with a mega building complex, the (DC). The project would eliminate dozens of trees for the preferred option, a 20,000 square foot main building with a
114 space parking lot.
Alert & Action
Among the initial people recruited by Grace Allen were a university professor biologist, nature center volunteers including local bird expert, Ed Barajas. In September 2006
we participated in the Scoping Meeting for the DC, a requirement of the California Environment Quality Act. At first, what became Friends of the Whittier Narrows Natural
Area was an informal group. But in 2007 we thought we needed a law-suit to stop them and then had to raise funds for it. In August of 2007, we formed the nonprofit 501(c)
3 Friends of Whittier Narrows Natural Area (Friends).
During these years, Friends continued to provide information to the community. Friends organized at the natural area. We organized art shows, poetry readings, community picnics,
and went to city council meetings. We spoke at schools and intervened at public meetings. In 2015 we held informational pickets. On several “Earth Days”, we set up tables where we
presented information about protecting the natural area from the DC excesses. On one public Earth Day at the Sanitation District public area officials threatened us and told us to leave.
We informed them of our free speech rights and stayed. The Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles was a member of the DC. We participated in events directed at public health, including one at
the natural area on the danger of mosquitos in wetlands by an insect vector specialist. The DC planned to build a shallow “demonstration wetland,” a potential mosquito breeding area adjacent to
the planned main meeting building, and “outdoor classroom” for children. We also assisted in a San Gabriel River clean-up cosponsored by other groups.
From 2007 and 2008 the Significant Ecological Area Technical Advisory Committee (SEATAC) of the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning met several times on whether or not to recommend the DC project. SEATAC members are professional biologists. On May 5, 2008, SEATAC voted not to recommend the project. We understood that Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina would abide by their decision. The Whittier Narrows Natural Area is the First District, her district. The DC had thought they were going to win this; they had thought it a perfunctory step and one they had assured themselves had an outcome in their favor. In July of 2009, there were the CEQA hearings at the South El Monte High School. We hired a lawyer, Marcia Wertenberger. Throughout this period we were going to DC board meetings regularly. We began to video the meetings and post excerpts of them to our YouTube channels. It was a good idea because they could not dispute recorded information for the public to see.
SOUTH EL MONTE HIGH SCHOOL AND RIO HONDO STUDENTS From the beginning, we had participation from Rio Hondo students. The high school had formed the Emerald Necklace club on campus and developed a petition against the DC’s development at WN. The petition signed by the students was presented to a public meeting of the DC.
GABRIELENO BAND OF MISSION INDIANS KIZH NATION (Kizh) In 2010 the Kizh became part of the efforts to save their sacred land at Whittier Narrows. On January 20, 2010 the DC voted to build their second largest alternative: a 14,000 sq ft facility and 114 space parking lot. In the vote they recognized destruction of existing natural area, affecting endangered birds, use of more global water, and contributing to climate change. Their rationalization was that it was more “important for the children.” We began our CEQA suit. In 2011 we submitted a petition against the DC signed by 1100 people to the DC (See YouTube video.). During this time the DC was setting up unannounced presentations meetings at city council, school board and campuses meetings, unannounced, so that Friends could not intervene. But, we found out about many anyway because we kept tabs on the internet announcements posted at the last minute.
Feb 2011 was the day of the trial. We had a new lawyer: Frank Angel. Friends was the plaintiff and the DC was the respondent. The DC was led by the Margaret Sahagi law firm. On their team in the courtroom is Belinda Faustinos, Executive Director for both the DC and the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy (The RMC is a California State agency and the lead in the DC). Fuastinos had been recently elected to the board of Audubon California. The area for building is within the same area for at least one endangered species. Audubon considers the area an important birding area. But Faustinos proposed paving and building on habitat for the Least Bells Vireo, an endangered species, and Important Birding Area. Several birds were also classified as “threatened” and “of concern,” per a report by Mickey Long, leading County Biologist for Parks, in 1998 and 1995. During the court session, our lawyer presented information about the endangered bird. Judge Toribio said why stop this “good” project for “one little bird.” The judge decided for the DC. We did not appeal because of the cost and two of the three panels that we would be assigned were pro development.
US ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS A participant in Friends group was also at the Sepulveda Basin, a flood basin like the Whittier Narrows Natural Area, learning about their wildlife protection committee. The Army Corp, owners of the land in at Sepulveda, had bulldozed the habitat w/o consulting the environmental committee. A Friends member discovered the Army Corps had to pay attention when they permit things to happen in their area. They were to comply with their own Recreational Guidelines. We began campaigning around guidelines and to stop funding.
GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS We met with Assemblyman Mike Eng, Congresswoman Judy Chu, Senator Barbara Boxer to inform them of the DC destruction. We attended City Hall meetings. Supervisor Gloria Molina would not meet with us. After our letter to her revealing we would have to go to the press because she would not meet with us, she finally provided a staffer, a person of unquestioning obedience, to meet with us.
SIERRA CLUB (SC) The Sierra Club played a duplicitous role. In April of 2007, we went to SC Conservation Committee Meeting because Sierra Club personage Jeff Yann wanted more and deep involvement by the SC. When Yann presented, he attempted to present from the point of view of a SC member, not a speaker on behalf of the DC. We, however, distributed materials informing SC that he was a paid Project Manager for the DC. We revealed a secret part of his work that he was intending to keep quiet. In addition, our high school and college students spoke in favor of saving their local piece of open space. Consequently, the Sierra Club dropped their support for the DCA funding appeals.
CALIFORNIA STATE PARKS GRANTS 2011. The DC had numerous contacts at the state level, but failed to get the millions of parks dollars. Cal Parks gave money to other applicants, not the DC. We think it’s because of our careful review of the DC application and presenting its problems to Cal Parks.
WHITTIER DAILY NEWS: THINKS SMALL AT WHITTIER NARROWS On May 12, 2012 the Whittier Daily News editorial board wrote “Think Small at Whittier Narrows.” The DC is a $21 million “bloated, overbuilt monument to government’s and water agencies’ overly developed sense of selfimportance.” The editors wrote that the Nature Center needs 1 million in TLC and that Friends has pointed out for years that “there is already a perfectly nice nature center at Whittier Narrows.”
ECO VOICES The DC paid $100s of thousands for a science program, Eco Voices, for local children at what they called the ”discovery center site,” meaning the Nature Center. The lead of the DC Eco Voices was not a scientist. The teachers of the program presented erroneous information. The program was a parallel organization to long standing Associates. The Associates was forced to cut their own programs to provide days when Eco Voices could conduct their activities. Eco Voices were provided places to store equipment in the small parking area of the nature center. They took children on field trips at the nature center, never telling them they were going to destroy it, the building and dozens of trees. The science info was incorrect. An example is they said male birds were always bigger than female because they are male. In fact, the female among many species is larger.
DISCOVERY CENTER FOUNDATION. Not winning the funds they needed, the DC Foundation, a non-profit foundation was set up. The Foundation had no physical address. They had a web page and a telephone number to raise money. The Foundation was established to get private corporate money. Failure.
ARMY CORP in 2014 and 2015. The Army Corp announced Whittier Narrows Dam was unsafe and needed to be reinforced, structurally changed to meet the new coming conditions of the climate change in the San Gabriel Mountains and the San Gabriel River. In 2017 the Corp said there would be no building. They said they had to protect habitat and archeological studies were needed. Most importantly, the current dam is a threat to the over million people downstream. Nothing can be built.