A proposed project under consideration by the city of Los Angeles would open trails on land near Griffith Park. The land is largely untouched and considered to be a vital wildlife corridor between the park and the Santa Monica Mountains to the west.
Opponents of the plan fear increased activity in the area by humans and dogs would degrade the natural appeal the space holds for native animals.
"Our organization is all for recreation, but it has to be in balance, and this is an area where the habitat may be critical to keep that connection open to the Santa Monica Mountains west of the Hollywood Freeway," said Gerry Hans, president of Friends of Griffith Park.
Scientists who research how animals utilize Griffith Park said that large mammals tend to avoid the areas of the park usually frequented by people.
“Detections of mule deer go down in areas that are heavily used by hikers and dogs. Native large mammals will avoid places with a lot of human use,” said Dan Cooper, an independent biologist who works on the Griffith Park Wildlife Connectivity Study.
Cooper’s work has received some funding from the Friends of Griffith Park in the past, but he said he’s not involved with this project. Still, he wonders about the need for more trails, considering the park already has 53 miles of them.
“From a conservation point of view, what’s wrong with just having a few places where people set aside and don’t walk,” Cooper said.
The land is believed to be the location where mountain lion P-22 crossed the 101-Freeway into Griffith Park. Genetic analysis has shown that the celebrated lion was likely born in the Santa Monica Mountains to the west. That population is among the nation's most genetically restricted, and several cases of inbreeding are known to have occurred within it.
A $4 million fundraising effort has begun to finance plans to build a wildlife crossing at Liberty Canyon to help alleviate the lions' genetic isolation.
That site would not be immediately utilizable by Griffith Park's wildlife, but Hans said that the area at Cahuenga Pass doesn't require any work to be useful to the park's animals.
"The really big concern here is loss of a wildlife connection that is working," Hans said.
The roughly 180-acre patch of land where the project would go is owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
The project would open access to the public and connect an existing utility service road to trails leading up Burbank Peak.
City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who is championing the project, said that the trails would improve access to Cahuenga Peak, which the city purchased and added to Griffith Park.
"I would like to share that. That's all. Not everybody's going to climb that mountain, but those that do are going to get something that you can't get anywhere else in the world," LaBonge said. "I didn't buy it for you to look at; I want people to hike on it."
LaBonge said criticisms of the project don't properly account for the recreation needs of Los Angeles residents.
"I'm a public representative, so I've got to balance it out, make sure that there's public access at the appropriate spots," LaBonge said.
The Department of Recreation and Parks has approved a license agreement to lease the land from LADWP for 20 years.
Final approval of the lease now lies with the board of the LADWP. An official with the agency said that he was unaware of how the board was likely to decide but that the proposal is similar to other ones it has approved.
“It’s consistent with the uses that we’ve established that are within our policy,” said Richard Harasick, director of water operations for LADWP.
Cathie Santo Domingo, an official with the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, said that the project, if approved, would undergo the CEQA process to determine environmental impacts and necessary mitigation.
Harasick said the earliest the board could take up consideration of the lease agreement would be in January.
Friends of Griffith Park have sent a letter to LADWP, urging the agency to reject the lease, citing the possibility of unintended adverse effects on wildlife.
Other conservation groups said that they would be willing to support the project as long as appropriate steps were taken to mitigate any damages caused by the increased activity.
Paul Edelman, deputy director of natural resources and planning for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy said that proper mitigation would include setting permanent conservation easements on the majority of the land.
“Set aside some of that land permanently so that there aren’t trails in it, and there aren’t any future developments in it,” Edelman said.
Edelman said he hopes the city will take the proper amount of time and advisement when determining any future plans for the site. He cited Runyon Canyon as a cautionary tale of a project that did not consider the wildlife impacts as it sought to provide recreation for users.
The popular hiking spot is widely used by humans and their pet dogs, but it is infrequently used by large, wild mammals.
“It no longer is the ecological gem it used to be," Edelman said. "People love it to death, basically.”