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In LA, the Army Corps of Engineers Bulldozes a Wildlife Refuge

David Pettit

Posted January 16, 2013

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The San Fernando Valley, now the home of more than 1.75 million people, is a 260 square mile basin northwest of downtown Los Angeles. 

In the 1930s and 40s, the Valley was plagued by floods from the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers that drain the surrounding watersheds.  Here is a photo taken during the famous flood of 1938.  

1938 flood SFV.JPGTo mitigate the flooding, in 1940-1941 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) built Hansen Dam on the Tujunga Wash and Sepulveda Dam on the Los Angeles River.  I grew up literally a stone’s throw from the Sepulveda Dam and used to go tadpole hunting with my friends in the creeks upstream of the dam, in what was once farmland and is now called the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area. 

In the 1980s and 90s, the ACOE created many acres of wildlife habitat with lakes, ponds and native vegetation in the Recreation Area.  Here is a photo of a part of the wildlife habitat that is intact, so far:

White Pelican.jpg


the ACOE also built hiking paths and view points that were used by many thousands of visitors, including members of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society and the Valley chapter of the Sierra Club

In late December, 2012, in what looks like an act of sheer vandalism, the ACOE bulldozed about 43 acres of the wildlife habitat down to bare dirt, with debris winding up in the L.A. River.  There was no public announcement or consultation about this action.  Members of the Audubon Society discovered it and immediately contacted the press and the ACOE.  You can read press coverage here, here, here, here and here.  Below are some photos that I took of the former wildlife habitat on January 13, 2013.

 Bulldozed 1.jpg

Bulldozed 2.jpg

Bulldozed 3.jpg

bulldozed 4.jpg

Hikers, bulldozed area.jpg

What is the ACOE’s excuse for this?  That it was part of a “five-year vegetation management project.” You can see a map of the area designated for vegetation management here (warning, map is slow to load) but nothing on the map tells a reader that “management” means ripping out everything living, including native plants that the ACOE itself had planted.

State and federal authorities are now looking into what happened.  The ACOE has met with Audubon and the Sierra Club and promised that the “vegetation management” program will stop, for now. 

One lesson from this mess is the need for meaningful public notice when something is proposed to be done that may have a significant effect on the environment.  Notice after the fact is worthless.  The federal National Environmental Policy Act requires advance notice, but it is unclear why that didn’t happen here.  On the state law side, the ACOE’s shockingly destructive action should be kept in mind when discussing so-called reforms of California’s primary environmental protection law, the California Environmental Quality Act. 

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Scott HolmesJan 17 2013 02:11 PM

My own experience with working for the Corps is that sometimes they just need something to do to justify themselves. On a smaller scale I knew a Park Manager that wanted to burn off all the reed canary grass on an drawn down reservoir. The fire burned for at least a week. Fortunately the winds were low and it didn't jump to the adjacent forest land.

ReneeJan 18 2013 03:41 PM

Is the ACOE subject to CEQA? I was under the impression that they did not have to conform to State law, only Federal law, but I'm new to this issue. I would like to see them subject to all of the same environmental laws as the rest of us.

David PettitJan 18 2013 05:07 PM

Renee, the ACOE is sometimes subject to CEQA, depending on the project. Where a project involves a water of the United States, which the LA River is, the Corps has the last word. Here, the Corps did a review under NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) but it was not candid about what it intended to do -- you can read through their documentation but nowhere does it say they are going to bulldoze the "vegetation management" areas down to bare dirt.

Eric KirkendallJan 19 2013 07:36 AM

This is shocking and I am sure heartbreaking for those who knew and loved this wildlife habitat Regarding their environmental assessment, this is not the first time the Corps of Engineers has developed or supported Findings of No Significant Impact that were patently fictitious. President Obama can and should put a stop to this long-standing practice!

John GivenJan 21 2013 01:21 AM

Once again we see the effect of the premise that it is better to ask forgiveness than permission. It's a real shame that there will be no penalty for such an egregious action.

Daniel FreedmanJan 24 2013 06:00 PM

David - thank you for writing on this. This is a giant, yet incredibly under-reported environmental debacle. It's borderline unbelievable.

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