When bulldozers meet birds: One year later

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When conservationist Kris Ohlenkamp last year stumbled across the bulldozed fields of the South Reserve at the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area — a wooded area popular spot among birders and nature enthusiasts — he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

“I was just dumbfounded. I mean, shocked. It looked like a hurricane hit the area. It was just unbelievable. I didn’t know what to say. It was very emotional for all of us that were here,” Ohlenkamp said. “The extent of what they did was all out of bounds.”

Ohlenkamp, conservation chair for the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society, had been leading a group in the annual Christmas bird count when they discovered that the Army Corps of Engineers had plowed over the Sepulveda Basin preserve.

The Army Corps had undertaken the action about a week beforehand as part of a five-year plan to control non-native vegetation and stop the spread of homeless encampments in the area.

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One year later, the damage is still visible, despite recent work by the Army Corps to remove debris, grade walking trails and reinstall trail markers.

On a recent morning, Ohlenkamp walked the site, pointing out the extent of the Army Corps’ work. Many spots remained covered by the debris from felled trees. At other places, year-old seedlings were poking through the brush.

“All of that is, to me, a shocking view, because I remember what it looked like before,” Ohlenkamp said. “Now you see a dozen trees standing out there by themselves with no undergrowth whatsoever.”

Despite the Army Corps’ stated intention of clearing out invasive plants, Ohlenkamp said its actions resulted in far more damage to native vegetation.

“They removed more than a hundred native trees and only three non-native trees, and they just did a survey of the area and found that there are still 200 non-native trees in the area that need to be removed,” Ohlenkamp said.

He said the number of bird species seen in the area has sharply dropped as a result.

Bird life affected

“The bird life was significantly impacted. The diversity here has been maybe less than half now what it was then,” he said.

The Army Corps halted its work after Ohlenkamp and others complained. Many politicians weighed in on the matter, including Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and California State Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills). The agency agreed to meet with community members to discuss future plans for the 48-acre site.

A spokesman for the Army Corps said that while it was within its rights to remove vegetation in the South Reserve, it should have done better outreach.

“Certainly, we all can agree that there should’ve been better and more frequent communication, which I think we’ve gotten back on track with,” said Jay Field, public affairs chief for the Los Angeles district of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Field said that over the next four years, workers will use herbicides to target and remove non-native plants. After that, they’ll begin replanting native plants. The Army Corps has contracted with RECON Environmental to develop plans for that replanting.

Facing another fight

But the Army Corps is facing another fight — this one with the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. That agency says the Corps’ clearing work has degraded water quality in the Los Angeles River. On Oct. 31, the board notified the Army Corps that it would pursue litigation if the Corps did not submit plans within 60 days for restoring the area and commit to seeking permits for similar work in the future.

“If the Corps is not willing to reach a reasonable agreement about seeking permits and engaging in appropriate mitigation, we will bring the action,” said Cris Carrigan, director of the office enforcement for the water board.

Litigation is likely: Army Corps officials say the water board has no jurisdiction over its activities.

“Those activities are actually not subject to Clean Water Act jurisdiction, and therefore, certification from the Regional Water Quality Control Board is not required,” Field said.

In the meantime, San Fernando Valley's Kris Ohlenkamp said that he has been encouraged that the Army Corps has engaged more directly with community members. He attributes a large portion of the change to a new colonel who took command of the district in July.

“The right things are getting done,” Ohlenkamp said. “Slowly, but they’re getting done.”

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