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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Oil and Water


A Ventura oil rig looks surprisingly etherial and beautiful at sunset, against the backdrop of the Channel Islands, but it's also a perpetual reminder that a single accident can have a catastrophic and long lasting impact on the fragile environment that surrounds it, and that the oil industry and our government officials need to be held accountable for safety and adequate prevention and emergency response.
The ancient Greeks are said to have poured oil on troubled waters to calm the sea, possibly as an offering to appease the god Poseidon. In the era of wide-scale petroleum production, Poseidon would more likely be dismayed than pleased by the toxic sludge by the oil industry, like the pipeline leak in Santa Barbara County that dumped more than 100,000 gallons of crude into the ocean on May 19.



Emergency responders clad in hazmat suits scoop globs of toxic tar off the cobbles at the site of the Refugio Oil Spill in Santa Barbara. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer David Mosley, from the official Refugio Response media alert website.

It’s deeply depressing to yet again witness the Santa Barbara coast awash in crude oil that is endangering and killing the birds, fish, sea lions, dolphins, and other marine life that so many have fought to protect with legislation and the creation of marine protected areas, since the catastrophic 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill galvanized the environmental movement in California.

The first Santa Barbara oil disaster occurred at a critical moment in history for the oil industry in Southern California.  Thousands of offshore oil leases were in play in the late 1960s—including more than 3000 in the Santa Monica Bay. That spill was a wake-up call. No one wanted to see a disaster of that scale happen again.


Oil boiled out of the ruptured well below Platform A on January 28, 1969, poisoning everything it came in contact with. It took ten days to stop the rush of oil into the ocean. The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill remains the third largest in U.S. waters. The blowout on Union Oil's Platform A in the Santa Barbara Channel poured an estimated 11 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean before the blow-out was contained. The accident occurred just a year after drilling commenced on the platform and despite Union Oil's assurance that a disaster of this type could never happen.  The spill energized the environmental movement, as communities united to opposed new offshore oil drilling on the California coast. Photo: NOAA

The battle against oil platforms in the Santa Monica Bay was one of the first fights my parents threw themselves into in Malibu. They moved here the year of the spill and saw the aftermath of 11 million gallons of crude oil first hand. Although Santa Barbara and Ventura counties and the Channel Islands received the brunt of the damage, oil washed ashore as far south as the Mexican border and plenty of it ended up in Malibu.


The impact of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill was felt from Pismo Beach to the Mexican Border. Plenty of oil, in the form of tar balls, washed up along the coast in Malibu. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Activists rallied. For Malibu conservationists, it meant petitions, letters, and buses packed with protesters bound for meetings in downtown Los Angeles.

 My mom remembers going to those meetings. “They told us they would paint the rigs blue, to match the sky,” she says. She also remembers the tar on the local beaches following the Santa Barbara spill. A bottle of nail polish remover was always in the beach bag with the sun screen and the towels.

There are natural tar seeps in Malibu that were used by the Chumash as glue and to seal the seams of their boats, but the naturally occurring oil is never seen today in the amounts that washed up along the Malibu coast in the years following the Santa Barbara spill. 

Malibu was spared the industrial pollution experienced by many of the other Southern California beach communities during the oil bonanza of the early 20th century, but even this remote and inaccessible stretch of coast wasn't immune to the oil fever that swept the west in the 1920s and I was surprised to learn the extent of oil exploration in the area.



Here's a copy of the actual "notice of intent to drill" for the first Point Dume oil derrick, signed by May Knight Rindge and dated November 14, 1923. Someone has added a 1 to the first number in the site description, changing it from 500 feet from the ocean to 1500 feet. The photo below clearly shows that the distance from the Point is correct, but that it really is only about 500 feet from the edge of the cliff, not 1500 feet.



This detail of a 1924 aerial photo shows the Point Dume oil rig, much closer to the cliff than the official description or local legend accounts for. The Adamson House Museum Archives website states: "May Rindge who was looking for sources of income to help fund her legal battles related to keeping a public road from crossing her ranch... sold some of the Union Oil Co. stock she inherited from her husband to finance [oil exploration]. [The well] operated for about two years, but no oil was ever found on the Rancho, at this or other sites. It actually contributed to her financial losses." 

Many longtime Malibu residents know the story of the Rindge oil rig on the top on Point Dume, constructed in 1924, but there was a second Point Dume oil well that was installed in 1940 and apparently abandoned in 1943. It appears that this second site is now under the garden of a well-known and highly respected musician. I wonder if he knows what is under his feet?



Here's the abandonment report for the second Point Dume well, dated August 17, 1943. Point Dume was being used by the military during WW II and was off limits to civilians from 1942-44, probably complicating any oil drilling efforts.

Records also reveal a well in what is now Charmlee Wilderness Park, and another, drilled in 1929 and plugged in 1930, down the street from Malibu High School. I was disappointed not to find any material on this well in the recent environmental reports released by the Santa Monica Malibu School District as part of the district's research on the site for the toxic substance clean up work plan that is being developed. The well location is near, but not on school property, which probably accounts for the omission. Although this is one of the only wells on the Malibu map that is listed as oil producing.

Evidence of the Malibu Park oil well location is clearly visible in several of the excellent aerial photographs provided as part of the SMMUSD's Draft Preliminary Environmental Assessment Work Plan for Juan Cabrillo Elementary, Malibu Middle and High Schools.



This image from the Adamson House Archive is described as the Rindge family's Point Dume oil derrick. This doesn't seem possible, because it shows PCH running between the ocean and the bluff, but it would make sense if this is the Malibu Park oil rig. If you compare it to the 1944 aerial photo, below, it synchs up quite well, including the beach house in the foreground.

The angle is different in this 1944 image, but the beach house is visible, front left, and there are still scars on the bluff top from the oil derrick installation, including the circular track visible in the Adamson House photo. Today, this would be near the corner of Morning View Drive and Merritt Drive.



Here's a detail of a report on the Malibu Park oil drilling operation. There's much more, including core sample information, at the state well records archive.

I was especially fascinated by two wells in Carbon Canyon (the source of the name, perhaps?) Both were drilled in 1924 by “Rieder Haag” and apparently abandoned. A survey in 1964 for the sites uncovered “no evidences of any old wells, or location, or oil, or gas, or water seeps.” 

The 1964 inspector speculated that one well may be under the parking area of the Carbon Canyon fire station. The map places the second well, described as 605 feet deep, under a massive house on the hill overlooking the highway. 

A notice of intent to drill form, dated 1923, describes the site as “2 lots, lands of Mathew Keller, east of Carbin [sic] Coal Canyon." A typed note reads: “this [is] wildcat country.”
That doesn’t refer to mountain lions or bob cats, but to oil exploration in an unproven area. 

Two sites in a remote portion of the Santa Monica Mountains above Charmlee deep in Encinal Canyon are also listed as wildcat wells. Both appear to have been drilled in 1923. How the crews lugged drilling and derrick equipment up the canyon is anyone’s guess. That area is still remote.



Here's the well inspector's note from a report on the Charmlee area well site in 1978. Another report indicates that neither this well nor the other two Encinal well sites were ever located.

An inspection in 1977 failed to find any trace of the Encinal wells. None of these wildcat wells appear to have yielded anything, but it’s interesting that, as of 2005, Chevron still apparently held the lease on two wells in the Decker Canyon area. The first of these was drilled in 1957 for the Gulf Oil Corporation. 

A Division of Oil and Gas report on proposed operations dated August 8, 1957, reveals that the wells were located on a mineral rights lease of 470 acres, and that the depth of the first well is listed as 7000-7500 feet. 

A map accompanying the claim shows parcels tagged by oil companies Franco Western, Texas, and Standard,  scattered among the more familiar names of the local settlers, like the Deckers and the Kincaids.



This map records oil leases on homesteads in the Yerba Buena and Decker area. It's available as part of the well record for one of the two Texaco leases in the Yerba Buena area, on the 
State of California Department of Conservation Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources website.

These early wells may not have yielded results, but they were just the beginning. A quick survey of the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources Well Finder reveals 25 well locations in the Malibu area. During the 1960s and 70s, the big oil companies began drilling test wells off shore.




Malibu oil drilling sites from the 1920s through the 1970s are marked on the State of California, Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources website interactive map. According to the map key, the black and white symbol means a "dry hole" that has been "plugged and abandoned," while the black symbol is suppose to mean oil was recovered. However, I could find no official record of oil recovery at the "McKeon" well in Malibu Park, the two "Rieder Haag Co." wells at Carbon Canyon, or the two "Salisbury" wells in the Decker Canyon area, despite their designation here as productive wells. Record keeping was minimal during the early oil exploration period, and there are reams of letters from the state's oil officials attempting to track down well logs and even locations of old well sites in Malibu, with little success. There appears to be no way of knowing what was found, or even exactly where the drilling took place in some instances, and there may be still undiscovered well sites.
Chevron filed drilling reports for a site off Bluffs Park in 1970, which appears to have been previously owned by Standard Oil in the 1950s. There was a test well off Puerco Canyon in 275 feet of water drilled by Shell Western Exploration and Production, Inc. in 1969. 

Exxon Mobile drilled a test well off the coast at Paradise Cove in 189 feet of water in 1970. There is a “notice of intention to drill” form dated 1965 for this site stamped “prospect well confidential, please do not publish," but the lease expired in 1998 and the data was released, along with a memo that states that the well is near other state and federal leases, despite the fact those leases were technically placed off limits in 1994.

An August 28, 1974 Los Angeles Times article states:  “[The] Assembly asked the U.S. government not to consider leases for 5,000 offshore oil wells between Laguna Beach and Malibu until a Federal Energy Administration report [is completed]." Drilling was stalled, at least temporarily.

The lobbying power of the oil industry could not combat the anger and determination generated by the 1969 Union Oil platform disaster. The tar fouling beaches, rocks, and marine life along miles of coast was a constant reminder of the disaster that could not be ignored, but not for want of trying.
A renewed push for drilling in the 1980s resulted in the federal government authorizing 37 vast offshore lease areas from Point Mugu to Santa Maria.



Here's a clipping from the May 22, 1980 edition of the Malibu Surfside News that my mom saved. It reports on the Carter Administration's decision to remove the Santa Monica Bay from the list of proposed oil leases, 35 years almost to the day of the Refugio spill.

In 1994, the state passed the California Coastal Sanctuary Act, which “declares that offshore oil and gas production in certain areas of state waters poses an unacceptably high risk of damage and disruption to the marine environment of the state.” That act protects the coast, including the Santa Monica Bay, from new oil drilling projects, but there is a major loophole.



A postcard shows the Summerland offshore oil rigs that transformed this stretch of the Santa Barbara coast from an idyllic beach town into a suburb of hell in the 1890s. This field, the first to be developed in Santa Barbara County, played out by 1940, but extraction continued off the coast of Summerland throughout the 20th century.

The Act “authorizes the State Lands Commission to enter into a lease for the extraction of oil or gas from state-owned tide and submerged lands in the California Coastal Sanctuary if the commission determines that the oil or gas deposits are being drained by means of producing wells upon adjacent federal lands and the lease is in the best interest of the state.”


No viable oil was apparently ever found on Malibu's beaches, but Huntington Beach, Playa Del Rey, Venice and Long Beach were all transformed by the oil boom of the 1920s and '30s. The oil companies made the money, not the residents. Schools closed, the Venice "Grand Canal" was so full of oil it reportedly caught on fire on more than one occasion. By the 1990s, it was all over. the State Lands Commission denied City of Los Angeles permit applications for slant drilling under the bay, and the shore fields were mostly played out.  

There are still thousands of active and potential wells in Southern California and conservationists are concerned that the oil industry, which has a bottomless war chest for lobbying, will eventually find a way to exploit that loop hole, leaving the coast vulnerable to future drilling projects. 

That’s why Marin County state senator Mike McGuire is proposing state bill 788, to close those loops and limit future offshore oil projects. The California Coastal Protection Act of 2015 will delete the authorization, and remove the oil industry’s foothold.



California brown pelicans undergo the lengthy and uncomfortable process of being de-oiled at the International Bird Rescue facility in San Pedro following the Refugio oil spill. These birds were lucky: they were rescued and treated quickly, and have a good chance of survival. Oil burns eyes and skin and eliminates the water resistance of the birds' feathers, putting them at risk of hypothermia and drowning. Photo from the International Bird Rescue website.

“Tuesday’s devastating oil spill is yet another example of the significant dangers related to coastal oil development,” McGuire said, in a press release. “Our thoughts are with the residents of Santa Barbara and all of those who are working hard on the recovery efforts.”

Malibuites can help by signing the Change.org petition supporting the measure, and by calling their representatives and asking them to support SB 788.



Los Angeles Herald Examiner photographer Mike Sergieff documented Malibu residents participating in a Save Our Coast rally to protest ocean pollution, September 4, 1988. The photo is in the collection of the Los Angeles Public Library. The vast majority of Malibuites, whatever their stand on other local issues, have always come together to support ocean causes, whether it was protesting oil development or supporting the creation of marine protected areas. The Refugio oil spill should be a call to arms to help our neighbors in Santa Barbara. 

Santa Barbara’s wildlife also needs our help. The International Bird Rescue's oiled bird team at San Pedro is currently assisting with the de-oiling effort but depends on donations to carry out this work. You can also follow their Refugio efforts on the IBR Facebook page.


It only takes a minute to sign and share a petition, or call or email our officials, but with enough support it can make an impact.

Animals are going to die as a result of this spill, despite the best efforts of rescuers. Dolphins, sea lions, seals, birds, lobsters, fish, zooplankton so small it isn't visible to the human eye, and ocean giants like whales and elephant seals will all be impacted. That's the grim reality of an oil spill this size. It will take years for this spectacular stretch of California Coast and all the biodiversity that makes its home there to recover. 



Sea lions are one of the marine mammal species currently being impacted by the Refugio spill, along with dolphins, harbor seals, elephant seals, and potentially humpback and gray whales and sea otters. Five pelicans, two sea lions and a dolphin have already died, according to the Ventura County Star. Five elephant seals and 12 sea lions are currently being treated at Sea World's Oiled Wildlife Care Center in San Diego.

However, out of this disaster an opportunity to prevent future oil spills is emerging. This doesn't have to happen again, not in Santa Barbara, or Alaska, or the Gulf of Mexico, not if we all work together for change. We are constantly barraged with bad news and tragedy on an epic scale, but this is one of the times when we can help create meaningful change. 

Suzanne Guldimann
26 May 2015



Sunday, May 17, 2015

Tree and Leaf


For more than a century and a half this venerable sycamore tree has stood near the edge of the Malibu Lagoon. It has survived fires, floods, and change, including the construction of Pacific Coast Highway. Now, developers propose chopping it down as a way of accommodating more traffic and more development in the Civic Center area.

"Not long ago—incredible though it may seem—I heard a clerk of Oxford declare that he 'welcomed' the proximity of mass-production robot factories, and the roar of self-obstructive traffic, because it brought his university into 'contact with real life.' 

"He may have meant that the way men were living and working in the twentieth century was increasing in barbarity at an alarming rate, and that the loud demonstration of this in the streets of Oxford might serve as a warning that it is not possible to preserve for long an oasis of sanity in a desert of unreason by mere fences, without actual offensive action (practical and intellectual). I fear he did not. 

"In any case, the expression 'real life' in this context seems to fall short of academic standards. The notion that motor-cars are more 'alive' than, say, centaurs or dragons is curious; that they are more 'real' than, say, horses is pathetically absurd. How real, how startlingly alive is a factory chimney compared with an elm tree: poor obsolete thing, insubstantial dream of an escapist!"

―J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf 

 I like to think the Professor would have harsh words for a certain developer’s plan to remove an ancient sycamore tree from the side of Pacific Coast Highway, where it has grown since before the road was built. Everyone who has ever driven through Malibu has driven past that tree.  

I’ve been reading the supplemental Environmental Impact Report for the road widening project that is part of the La Paz shopping center development plan. In order to build the new 112,000 square-foot mall on undeveloped land next to the Malibu Library, PCH has to be widened to accommodate a longer/bigger turn lane for Cross Creek Road.





Here's a rendering of the La Paz shopping center, landscaped in the illustration not with native trees like sycamores but with tropical coral trees and jacarandas. Real Estate advisor firm for the project Richard J. Hill and Co.  states on their website that "We noted with great interest annual retail rental structures [in Malibu] exceeding $200.00 a square foot and rent to sales ratios that were non-economic." The firm, whose job is described as "to define and quantify the site’s retail potential, opportunities and challenges," also states: "The initial analysis defined Malibu as a cultural gateway, iconic brand showcase, and a portal into the lives of brand apostles in the entertainment and sports industries." This mission statement is at odds with the City of Malibu's, which states: "Malibu is a unique land and marine environment and residential community whose citizens have historically evidenced a commitment to sacrifice urban and suburban conveniences in order to protect that environment and lifestyle, and to preserve unaltered natural resources and rural characteristics." Chopping down a historic tree to make way for commercial real estate isn't a great way to "preserve unaltered natural resources." This disconnect perfectly demonstrates why the vast majority of Malibu voters endorsed Measure R, which restricts the number of chain stores and will require approval from the voters for all future large development projects.

EIRs are, unfortunately, a kind of game. Instead of being a tool to identify and solve environmental issues, all too often they end up being a collection of lame excuses.  The environmental community likes to say the developer hires a biologist to go out and sit in their car with the windows up, their eyes closed ,and their fingers in their ears, who will then report that they didn’t see or hear anything. 

The Millennium project in Hollywood is a great example of this sort of “we didn’t see it so it isn’t here” philosophy. The developers proposed building two massive apartment towers on a major earthquake fault. You can read about it here.  

It’s not usually quite that bad in the Malibu area, where the California Coastal Act and the local coastal program developed as a result of it, temper to some degree all projects. Although one recent EIR used a special concern plant and animal species list from another part of California—a handy way of making sure you don’t find anything on the list. 

The most spectacular omission lately is the site of a proposed housing development with Chumash artifacts in plain view on the surface. The Sierra Club brought in a local expert after the EIR preparers found nothing. The outside expert reported his finds to the Coastal Commission. It's hard to fathom how the expert hired by the company preparing the EIR somehow failed to notice he was standing in the middle of an archeological site. Perhaps there was a communication failure. Something like: “Oh, artifacts! I thought you wanted me to look for aardvarks.” 

In the La Paz EIR, the authors try to slide past the sycamore removal controversy by describing the massive tree as a “41-inch sycamore.”

If one goes to see “Attack of the 50-Foot Woman," one is expecting to see a movie about a giant. When one reads about a “41-inch tree,” the visual that is conveyed is a tree shorter than the average adult human.

In this case, the measurement is intended to indicate not height but diameter. However, one suspects that the authors of the EIR wouldn’t mind in the least if it makes the tree seem diminutive.  



Here's the "41-inch tree." It would be even more massive, but several large branches and a third stem have been removed over the years, and it has apparently been topped more than once. It stands between 50 and 60 feet tall today, but appears to have a larger canopy in old aerial photos. It reminds me of the comic book character Hellboy—the sawed-off branches and trunk resemble his horns and stone arm, and the whole shape is rather similar—maimed, but tough and and enduring. 


Mike Mingola's iconic comic book character Hellboy is almost indestructible and nearly immortal. Unfortunately, the Malibu sycamore tree is not.



These improvements would require the removal of one (1) existing 41" sycamore tree located southeast of the Pacific Coast Highway/Cross Creek intersection and five (5) existing eucalyptus trees located southwest of the Pacific Coast Highway/Cross Creek intersection. 

I don't see the word diameter in there, do you? It is mentioned later, once, on page four, but the initial and almost consistent omission throughout most of the document makes it sound like a small tree. 




Here's a look at the "41-inch" sycamore from the east side. The La Paz EIR does not include a report on the tree, but it appears to be thriving and is probably good for least another 100 years, given the chance to live.

The EIR never mentions that there are two stems of nearly equal girth. What that 41-inch diameter measurement means is that each stem of this tree has an almost 11-foot circumference. Diameter = circumference divided by pi: it’s the distance through the trunk, not around it. Describing this tree as a “41-inch sycamore” is disingenuous. 

The developers propose to replace this tree with 10 one-gallon seedling trees. The problem is, none of these trees will replace the existing giant in our lifetimes, because the tree that is scheduled for destruction is old—a true heritage tree.



It's going to take a long time for a one gallon seedling to replace the old sycamore tree, and once the old tree is gone, there won't be anything to screen the view of the Civic Center development, including the gas station sign, from the visitors at the Malibu Lagoon.

Using the US Forestry Service’s formula (using stem diameter, height, canopy dimensions and the estimated growth rate for the species) to determining the age of a tree—a challenge because one stem grows horizontally, yields a result that indicates this tree is around 160 years old.



Most longtime locals are familiar with this vintage postcard image from the late 1930s/early 1940s, but if you give it a second look, you can see our friend the tree—visible right before the bridge. This image is from the Eric Wienberg Collection of Malibu Matchbooks, Postcards, and Collectables, at Pepperdine University, and you can see it in much more detail on the Pepperdine site.

The date is an educated guess, based on the size of the tree and the known growth rate of the species. If it’s accurate, this tree has survived fires, floods and the construction of the highway. It would have sprouted during the 1850s, the era of the California gold rush. The Malibu Rancho was still a Spanish land grant property in the 1850s, belonging to French settler Leon Victor Prudhomme. This tree would have been fully grown when Frederick Hastings Rindge purchased the rancho in 1892. When PCH was constructed in 1929, it may have already been nearing the century mark.



The lone tree slightly to the left of center at the bottom of the photo is our sycamore in 1924, before the highway was constructed. You can view a larger version of this aerial photograph at the Adamson house archives. The tracks for the Rindge railroad are visible where PCH is now. 

One thing that can be documented beyond the shadow of a doubt is the presence of a large tree in that location in aerial photographs. The oldest aerial photo I could find is from 1924, shown above, but one can track the tree through the decades at the UCSB aerial photography archive, beginning in 1929, the year PCH was constructed. 




The Civic Center area in 1947, long before it was a "civic center." This fantastic aerial photograph is also preserved in the Pepperdine University digital archive.



Here's a close-up, showing the tree long before there was a Cross Creek Road. The photographer was shooting towards the lagoon, which is why the tree is on the "wrong" side of the highway. 

Malibu has a dismal record on historic preservation. While much of the most egregious destruction occurred before the community incorporated as a city, we’ve allowed developers to bulldoze and demolish our heritage—Chumash sites, ranch-era buildings, WW II history, mid-century modern architecture, and natural resources, including ocean views, open space, ridgelines and trees. 

Frederick Hastings Rindge, who bought the Malibu Rancho from Matthew Keller in 1892, wrote about a number of local heritage trees:

One great oak in Ramirez Canyon, of massive size and great gnarled trunk, we call  Abraham’s Oak, in remembrance of the ancient oak in Palestine of the same name, so called because it was thought to have lived in Abraham’s day. Many the time have I wished that grand old oak to make me his confidant and revel the secrets of the past. 

In Soston [Solstice] Canyon about twenty-five young oaks are growing close together, and their tops blending in foliage make a great umbrella-shaped roof, a fine house. The birds love these trees.

In Trancos [sic] Canyon I know a noble oak whose boughs almost reach the ground, and on all the branches, even the lower ones, within your reach, are scores of nests. It is really a compound bird-nursery.

None of these trees are there now.



It isn't as grand a tree as Rindge's "Abraham oak," but this Ramirez Canyon tree is one of the surviving canyon giants. When I was a child this oak stood at the edge of a horse paddock, and was the subject of many tall tales, ranging from ghost stories to wild west hangings. It is now in a flowerbed island surrounded by pavement at the entrance to a mansion, but at least it is still standing, proving that solutions can be found.

Trees are a lot easier to cut down then they are to grow—hundreds of years of living history can be obliterated in minutes with a chainsaw.

The sycamore isn't the only tree scheduled for demolition on PCH at the lagoon. Part of the row of 70-year-old eucalyptus trees that for more than three generations have provided shade for surfers and other beachgoers parked on PCH are headed for the chopping block. Like the sycamore, you can trace their history in the aerial photography record. Unlike the sycamore, they aren't native trees, but they are large and old and picturesque. 



A postcard from the late 1950s shows the sycamore and the row of eucalyptus trees, front and center, part of "Malibu Beach" history, soon to be history if Malibu residents don't speak out. This image is also from Pepperdine University's stellar digital archive.
I'll miss them when they are gone. The surfers will miss the access to free parking underneath them, along the stretch of highway closest to the Malibu Lagoon State Beach entrance, which apparently is also going to be a casualty of this project.



The trees and many of the surfers' cars will have to go if the developers get their way. The surf was up the day I took this photo and cars were double and triple parked all along this stretch of PCH. 

The road widening project may or may not help with the traffic situation in the Civic Center area. It would be nice if the plan could be completed in a way that doesn’t require the destruction of the sycamore or the eucalyptus trees. 

It will be unfortunate if the trees are removed and the city decides to adopt the Civic Center Design Standards Task Force’s idea of making the traffic on Civic Center Way and Cross Creek one way only, negating the necessity for the removal.



This postcard from the late 1940s shows the row of eucalyptus trees just a few years after they were planted. Aerial photos from 1944 show no trees except for the sycamore, by 1947, the trees are clearly visible. A post WW II date like 1945 sounds reasonable for the year of planting. That would make them 70 years old today.

It’s depressing that developers continue to have the financial leverage to push ill-conceived projects through, while environmental and conservation activists struggle on shoestring budgets.


It would undoubtedly be a better world if developers and their investors could learn to care about more than the bottom line, but it probably isn’t realistic to expect some kind of epiphany, not when the "apostles" preach the gospel of "iconic brands" (what does that even mean?). However, it is still not too late to save the trees. 

The Planning Commission hearing on this phase of the project is scheduled for June 2 and the public comment period is open until May 21. The entire document is available here.

Comments can be submitted to: 

Planning Commission 
c/o Kathleen Stecko, Recording Secretary
kstecko@malibucity.org
23825 Stuart Ranch Road
Malibu, CA 90265


Many of us who love Malibu see it as the Professor saw Oxford, as "an oasis of sanity in a desert of unreason." Some days it feels like that desert is encroaching on us despite all of our efforts to hold it back, but that doesn't mean we can't keep fighting for the things that are important.

Suzanne Guldimann
17 May 2015






Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Tune Without the Words


Charcoal gray gulls fill the air with a rush of wings on the last evening of April at Westward Beach. This species, Larus heermanni, or Heermann's gull, is abundant on Malibu's beaches in late spring, but it's also near threatened, with a population estimated at just 150,000 breeding pairs. It's a reminder that many of the things we take for granted here in Malibu are rare and remarkable. All photos © 2015 S. Guldimann


Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul, 
And sings the tune without the words, 
And never stops at all, 

And sweetest in the gale is heard; 
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm. 

 I’ve heard it in the chillest land, 
And on the strangest sea; 
Yet, never, in extremity, 
It asked a crumb of me.

—Emily Dickinson

The tune without the words, the song of hope, is everywhere in Malibu in May. In the garden, morning is a symphony—and sometimes a cacophony—of bird calls: the oriole ticks and clicks like an overactive geiger counter, the parrots in the neighbor's palm tree exchange opinions with the crows in the eucalyptus tree and the oak titmouse alternates between announcing "sweet, I'm sweet!" and scolding the resident blue jay with a cry that sounds like "cheater, cheater, cheater." At dusk the sky is full of the rush of swallow wings and the silent acrobatics of the bats. 



The beautiful hooded oriole is a frequent garden bird, but it is shy and often more likely to be heard than seen. Its call is a combination of ticks and twitters that sound like a geiger counter.

All along Westward Beach and Surfrider, thousands of  elegant terns swirl and call, transforming the scene into a tableau from a snow globe, and the pelicans have returned, too, graceful, huge and pterodactyl-like.



A flock of California brown pelicans takes to the sky. You can see the little puffs of sand kicked up as they launch themselves into the air with powerful wings. Brown pelicans really are giants, their wingspan ranges from six to eight feet.

Last week, it seemed that there were just a few of each, this week, hundreds have gathered at Zuma and Surfrider. Flights of pelicans can be spotted all along the coast and the clamor of cries from the huge convention of terns at Surfrider can be heard from PCH.


The sky fills with the sleek white wings of the aptly-named elegant terns.

Like the Heermann's gulls, the terns have returned from their breeding grounds in Baja. And like the gulls, the elegant tern  is also listed by the IUCN (the International Union of Conservation for Nature) as near threatened, although you wouldn't know it to look at the numbers currently present in Malibu. 


A group of elegant terns gather on the sand at Westward Beach.

May is also a good time to look for more unusual species. There were stilts in the main channel of Malibu Creek this week—wading birds with impossibly long, thin, pink legs, and a pair of white-faced ibises—a species this bird watcher had never seen in person before. The brants were there, too—small wild geese stopping for a rest on their way north, but the terns and the pelicans are the most conspicuous harbingers of summer. 



A trio of brants—small, short-billed wild geese—dabble in the main channel of Malibu Creek. 


These are white-faced ibises. The photo doesn't do their spectacular iridescent plumage and bright pink eyes and legs justice. I know the ibis is the symbol of the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom, Thoth, but they looked more like something out of Lewis Carroll to me.



While I was trying to get a good shot of the ibises I was photobombed by an black-necked stilt, another candidate for a Wonderland native.

The pelicans and terns were late this year. The crash in the sardine population that is being blamed for the sea lion unusual mortality event may be responsible for that, but its grunion season now, and the tiny silver fish that spawn on the beach at the new moon in spring and summer are essential for marine mammals and sea birds.

Grunion will be running almost every night during the first week of May this year, thanks to the full moon. The May grunion run is an opportunity for to observe, not join the feast.  The first three months of the grunion breeding season are off limits to human fishers to give the fish a break. It's a bonanza for birds and marine mammals, with many diurnal species showing up in the middle of the night to take advantage of an all-you-can-eat fish dinner. 



Raccoon footprints in the mud near the mouth of Malibu Creek indicate grunion may have been on the menu for more than sea birds.

Here is the May grunion run schedule. Click here to see the Department of Fish and Wildlife's entire 2015 grunion run time chart. 


4
5
6
7

18
19
20
21
Mo 10:00 p.m. - Midnight
Tu 10:30 p.m. - 12:30 a.m.
We 11:05 p.m. - 1:05 a.m.
Th 11:45 p.m. - 1:45 a.m.

Mo 10:00 p.m. - Midnight
Tu 10:40 p.m. - 12:40 a.m.
We 11:20 p.m. - 1:20 a.m.
Th 12:05 a.m. - 2:05 a.m.*



For the struggling sea lion population, the arrival of the grunion couldn't come too soon, and the tiny silver fish also attract common and bottlenose dolphins—absent for much of the spring due to the lack of bait fish, back to the Malibu coast. 



Sea lion pups rescued by the California Wildlife Center, being treated for malnutrition and dehydration in March.

Two of the same CWC sea lions, healthy again and headed back to the ocean for a second chance. You can read about the release event, and view more photos here.

Grunion are an essential food source for the Malibu Country Mart's colony of egrets and herons, too. Raccoons, coyotes and the ever opportunistic crows joining in on the fish feast. You never know what you'll see on a grunion night, darkness and silence, or something extraordinary. 



Harried egret parents are taking advantage of the spring grunion run to provide food for their young. 
Nesting real estate at the Malibu Country Mart was at a premium this year. The ficus trees at the shopping center that are the favorite rookery—or heronry—for snowy and great egrets and black-crowned night herons, were pruned hard over the winter. The foliage is just starting to grow back, but there's at least a few nests like this one, which is already full of hungry and vociferous nestlings. 

May is the time of rebirth, of love and joy and exuberance, of hope, but in Malibu it also brings a sense of loss. It's the end of the gray whale migration. All through the winter there’s the chance—and the hope—that a morning walk or a trip to the beach at sunset will offer a sight of whales. When the last few stragglers have left the warm southern seas and sailed past Point Dume on their way home to the arctic it feels as if some essential magic has gone with them. 



A gray whale and her calf pause at Zuma Beach on the long journey north to the arctic circle.

For me, part of that is grounded in the fact that when I was a child there was the very real fear that the whales would go and not come back. Whales still need protection, they face serious threats that range from pollution to ship strikes and Navy sonar, but they are still here, thanks to passionate conservation advocates who fought and continue to fight for their right to live.

There's an added poignancy in Malibu, since Point Dume was the location of the last commercial whaling operation in California. A total of 250 California gray whales were caught, killed and diced into dog food off Paradise Cove


Whereas, whales and dolphins are known to be highly intelligent and emotional creatures that live in families and other social groupings, associations that last for most, if not all, of their lives and therefore deserve the right to their own freedom and lives.

The proclamation was a purely symbolic gesture, since the city has no authority over anything below the mean high tide line, but it was the first time an American city has officially recognized the right of cetaceans to live undisturbed.




A pair of bottlenose dolphins swim past Point Dume, enjoying freedom and life.

May is a reminder that that things can change for the better. The California brown pelican, the snowy and great egret and the gray whale have all been snatched back from the edge of extinction. The tern's fate is less certain, despite special protections in California, but there's hope for it. There's hope for everything. The "tune without the words" is the anthem of the conservation movement.  

While it's fun and interesting to observe the natural world, it can also be important. We have to know what is there if we are going to protect it. And appreciating it isn't enough, we have to fight for it, too. So there will continue to be grunion, and sea lions, and dolphins, and so there will still be terns in May, and the whales will return in December—this year, and next year, and a hundred years from now. 


“What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

― Jane Goodall  


Suzanne Guldimann
1 May 2015