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Environment & Science

Feuding neighbors, and even threats of violence, in Malibu Lagoon environmentalists' battle

A view of Malibu Lagoon in July 2011.
A view of Malibu Lagoon in July 2011.
Marcia Hanscom/Wetlands Defense Fund

As I’ve been talking to adversaries about Malibu Lagoon in the last week, what stands out is how well they know each other. Or, at least, how well they think they do.

“That’s a fundamental difference in how people are looking at that site,” Rich Ambrose of UCLA told me. “People who understand that there are a lot of problems and the site is impaired, but it’s on the water side, versus the people who enjoy going out to the site and they can see plants living on the ground and they can see the birds that are using it and so they don’t, I think, understand what the problems with the site are.”

Environmentalism isn’t a single viewpoint. The environmental priorities of the proponents of the Malibu Lagoon restoration are on display and have been, pretty much by law, for more than a decade. They say the project aims to decrease urban runoff, increase circulation, restore habitat, and decrease nutrients in the water.

You can find these priorities in planning documents at the City of Malibu’s website. And the environmental impact report is hosted a number of places, including TheRealMalibu411, where, regardless of whether you agree with the site’s creators, you can find primary-source documents, including transcripts of hearings, letters from state parks, renderings of what the lagoon could look like, and an independent analysis of water quality.

Marcia Hanscom, Roy van de Hoek, and other opponents of the project who think about it as conservationists and naturalists have priorities, too. It’s harder to find them in their website, Save Malibu Lagoon, but they’re there. Most of the documents they post are persuasive legal filings, letters from politicians like Tom Hayden and the Malibu City Council, and other ads attacking the project.

But if you take a look at Roy van de Hoek’s declaration made as part of the legal challenge you start seeing what they care about. Hanscom and van de Hoek’s priorities are existing habitat, and existing wildlife and plants at the lagoon. Instead of improving the 1983 restoration project with more restoration, as the proponents want to do, van de Hoek argues that the “functioning” lagoon ecosystem deserves respect. They argue, passionately, for the status quo. Given the choice, I’d guess they pretty much never want intervention by humans.

Hanscom wrote last summer in Malibu Patch, of seeing a celebration of life: "Fish — large and small — by the millions, colorful dragonflies alighting on rocks and flowers, shorebirds, wading birds, waterfowl, songbirds — hunting for food, singing for territory protection, interacting with other wildlife..." She argues passionately that the boardwalk path over the western part of the lagoon is more than just a path. She sees the trees for the forest, not the other way around, and she calls to the birds by name in her posts: 

Red-winged blackbirds perch atop the tulle flowers. Snowy egrets probe the mud for food with their bright yellow feet. A juvenile black-crowned night heron watches the water with so much patience she appears to be a statue. A screeching Caspian tern repeatedly circles over the crowd gathered on one of the bridges to view the wildlife.

Beyond that, though, is a heightened tension that has nothing to do with these environmental perspectives. The underground battle is not rooted in science or conservation principles, but instead is deep in the morass of Malibu-specific politics that pit neighbor versus neighbor, surfer-realtors against surfer-firefighters. And that’s where it’s getting ugly. 

Last Friday, a county beach maintenance worker who likely has little to do with lagoon restoration reported death threats to his supervisor. Two guys in their twenties approached the worker near his tractor at Trancas and told him if he was involved in lagoon restoration, "you will be wearing a toe tag.” John Hardy of L.A. County Beaches and Harbors confirmed the report was forwarded to the L.A. County Sheriff’s department. County and state officials say this is what they've been preparing for, and worried about.