Friday, August 28, 2015


A pocket gopher, blissfully unaware that it is the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District's Undesirable No. 1 and will be gassed out of existence using the WW I-style warfare overkill approach to pest management.

You might think that the City of Malibu's resolution opposing the use of dangerous and deadly rodenticides and the fact the municipality is in the process of developing a citywide rodenticide ban like the one recently approved for the Santa Monica Mountains in unincorporated Los Angeles County would be enough to convince the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District that the pest management version of carpet bombing might not be the best approach for its schools, but it wasn't.

The same school district that has been in hot water over its attempt to sweep epic levels of PCB contamination at Malibu High School under the rug, decided to use Fumitoxin—pellets of aluminum phosphide that combine with moisture to release deadly phosphine gas, to kill a few gophers. 

This pesticide was applied just days before students and teachers arrived on campus for the fall semester. It's a blanket nuke-everything approach, instead of the targeted pest management plan the district is suppose to be responsible for developing and following.

I wrote the following for a 2011 article in the Malibu Surfside News on pesticide use at Malibu High School, it's  discouraging to have to quote it again, four years later:

The EPA has placed [Aluminum phosphide] in its highest toxicity category. As a restricted use pesticide, it can be used by certified personnel only. According to the manufacturer’s description, the compound converts to a deadly phosphine gas when it comes in contact with moisture, eventually degrading into inorganic phosphate, which is not toxic to humans but is a groundwater contaminant and contributes to ocean water quality degradation.

According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report published in 1997, aluminum phosphate has been found to eliminate certain species of ground squirrel, but that “burrowing fumigants will kill animals residing in treated burrows, so it is important to verify that burrows are occupied by target animals. Animals potentially affected by primary poisoning include nontarget rodents, burrowing owls, reptiles and amphibians, rabbits, raccoons, fox, weasel and skunk.”

The EPA lists all organophosphates, including aluminum phosphide, as “acutely toxic to bees, wildlife, and humans.” Recent studies suggest a possible link to adverse effects in the neurobehavioral development of fetuses and children, even at low levels of exposure.

In 2010, Fumitoxin caused the death of a four-year-old girl and her 15-month-old sister in Utah, after the fumigant leaked into the basement of the girls’ home. The rodenticide was applied by an exterminator to treat the family’s lawn for gophers. The toxic fumes were spread throughout the house by the air conditioning.

A letter sent to Malibu parents indicates that the district also authorized the use of strychnine, a poison that has no antidote—which is why it's popular with mystery writers and real life murderers—and a reputation for decimating wildlife. It is a well-documented frequent cause of secondary poisoning in cats and dogs, and species like coyotes and bobcats.

Parents, community members, and activists—including volunteers from Poison Free Malibu, rushed to protest. The district successfully headed off the opposition by arranging for the pesticides to be applied two hours before the stated time.

Then, in the words of the Malibu Times, "the firestorm began."

The article quotes a letter from Malibu Mayor John Sibert:

“As you well know, the City Council unanimously supported a statement against the use of rodenticides and other poisons for pest control in the city,” reads an email sent last week from Malibu Mayor John Sibert to [SMMUSD Superintendent Sandra Lyon] and shared with The Malibu Times.

“To have the school district ignore these efforts and plan an extensive fumigation and poison program on the MHS fields, particularly during the school year when they are in use, is extremely disturbing,” the letter continued. “I hope you would hold off on this and consider other alternatives. The city and, I’m sure, Poison Free Malibu is willing to help. Let me know if you are willing to consider other options.”

Apparently, the district wasn't willing.

The only Malibu resident on the SMMUSD board, Craig Foster,  "tried to find compromise among parents and the district," according to The Malibu Times. Here's a quote:

“I expect that all of us share two beliefs. First, we believe that our children should be free to play on our schools’ fields, safe from pest-related injury. Second, we believe that our pest management should be mindful and honor the delicate nature of our shared ecosystem. I am not happy that the treatment is going ahead and I know I am far from alone in my upset. However, given where we are right now, I believe this is the choice that best meets all of our responsibilities.

His words might have carried more weight if the photo below wasn't the example of the risk of "pest-related injury" that the district provided for the article:

There it is, dear reader, the SMMUSD's justification for poisoning a large section of the Malibu High School campus: a pair of gopher holes. Oh, the horror! Here at the Malibu Post we're at a loss to know why a couple of traps and a shovel weren't used to deal with the problem. Photo: SMMUSD via The Malibu Times

We aren't living in that happy delusional mid-century era when the schools were built and Du Pont promised us "better living through modern chemistry."

In 2015, no one would consider covering their child's room with DDT-treated wallpaper. We know now about the catastrophic impact of this pesticide, but the "nature is the enemy" attitude that was a key component of the mid-century modern mindset is slow to change, especially at the institutional level, even though we know that chemicals like 
Aluminum phosphide are also deadly.

We're living in the aftermath of that giant chemistry experiment. There is growing evidence that many pesticides impact human health, and no one is more vulnerable than children. We also have an ever-increasing body of data that provides incontrovertible evidence that pesticide use is devastating wildlife, and more specifically, extensive evidence sponsored by the National Park Service, collected and analyzed by top ecologists, and published, and peer-reviewed, that key species in the Santa Monica Monica Mountains and Malibu are being decimated by rodenticides.  

Malibu High School, and all of Malibu, is located within the boundaries of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. National Park Service parkland is located less than a mile away from the campus. This school is also right next to a Marine Protected Area and an area of special biological significance. 

Let's meet some of the potential victims of the SMMUSD's poisoning program, shall we?

Here's one of the gopher's main natural predators, the gopher snake. Unfortunately, snakes like these are frequent victims of rodenticide. They die from eating poisoned prey, but also from rodenticides like Fumitoxin, because they occupy the tunnels made by the gophers. 

We tend to think of egrets and herons as water birds, but they are equally at home in fields and meadows, where they hunt for reptiles and rodents. This places them at risk from secondary rodenticide poisoning. Many bird species depend on rodents as a food source.

This is the California ground squirrel, another frequent target of the school's war on wildlife. They're a primary food source for many predators, including owls, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, badgers, weasels, raccoons and rattlesnakes. They're also intelligent, gregarious animals that communicate with an extensive vocabulary of squeaks and whistles and have developed a series of clever strategies to avoid ending up on the dinner menu. According to observations made by Barbara Clucas, a graduate student in animal behavior at UC Davis, ground squirrels and rock squirrels mask their scent by picking up pieces of shed snakeskin, chewing it and then licking their fur. According to the research published in Science Daily in 2007, "adult female squirrels and juveniles apply snake scent more often than adult males, which are less vulnerable to predation by snakes, Clucas said. The scent probably helps to mask the squirrel's own scent, especially when the animals are asleep in their burrows at night, or to persuade a snake that another snake is in the burrow." 

The side-blotched lizard, and its cousin the fence lizard, often shelter in gopher burrows. Pesticides like Fumitoxin don't differentiate between target species and non-target species. 

This white-tailed kite is one of numerous raptor species that are present on the Malibu High School campus. This is a species that came close to extinction during the DDT era and still has numerous protections, but nothing can protect it from secondary poisoning.

Here's someone else who can be impacted by irresponsible pesticide overuse. According to the EPA, aluminum phosphide can contribute to ocean water degradation. These sea lions got a second chance at life at the California Wildlife Center during the recent sea lion mortality event. Marine mammals like these face enough challenges without having to deal with the SMMUSD's toxins entering the water at Zuma, which is a Marine Protected Area.  Enough is enough. 

Rachel Carson famously wrote:

 “We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost's familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.” 

It may be the road less traveled, but it doesn't mean we have to walk it alone. The school district is being offered every kind of assistance and support to make the transition to a less toxic lifestyle for our teachers, our children, and our community. The mayor, the Malibu City Council, and city staff are willing to help, so is Poison Free Malibu. There are no excuses left for not owning up to the challenge and becoming responsible Malibu residents like the rest of us try to be.

The attitude that Malibu is some sort of rebel colony that has to be run with an iron hand is just as antiquated as the district's pesticide policy. It's time for both attitudes to be revised, and it would be nice if one of the things the people in charge of our children's education could learn is compassion for all life. A little environmental science wouldn't hurt either. It isn't 1950 any more. 

“If, having endured much, we have at last asserted out "right to know," and if by knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.”

—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Wayfarers All

A vast flock of gulls take wing at Westward Beach. as summer gives way to autumn, the air is full of the rustle of wings as feathered pilgrims arrive and depart. All photos © 2015 S. Guldimann

The Water Rat was restless, and he did not exactly know why. To all appearance the summer’s pomp was still at fullest height, and although in the tilled acres green had given way to gold, though the rowens were reddening, and the woods were dashed here and there with a tawny fierceness, yet light and warmth and colour were still present in undiminished measure, clean of any chilly premonitions of the passing year. But the constant chorus of the orchards and hedges had shrunk to a casual evensong from a few yet unwearied performers; the robin was beginning to assert himself once more; and there was a feeling in the air of change and departure. 

The cuckoo, of course, had long been silent; but many another feathered friend, for months a part of the familiar landscape and its small society, was missing too, and it seemed that the ranks thinned steadily day by day. Rat, ever observant of all winged movement, saw that it was taking daily a southing tendency; and even as he lay in bed at night he thought he could make out, passing in the darkness overhead, the beat and quiver of impatient pinions, obedient to the peremptory call.

—Kenneth Graham, The Wind in the Willows, Chapter 9, Wayfarers All

Malibu is a long way from Graham's much-loved English river bank, but here, too, there is a feeling in the air of change and departure, as August gives way to autumn.  

In the garden, the first red leaves have appeared on the liquidambar tree, and the pomegranates are almost ripe, their red rinds burned brown by the hot weather.

The leaves of the liquidambar tree in the garden are already touched with autumn color. 

The parrots that nested in the eucalyptus tree have successfully raised their young and departed. I am surprised to find how much I miss their chatter. 

The family of parrots that nested in the eucalyptus tree were the Malibu Post's summer alarm clock. The young ones woke at six each morning and let the world know that they were hungry. Both chicks were successfully raised and fledged, much to everyone's relief and the nest is empty and quiet. 

I snapped this photo on fledging day, as the young ones took wing for the first time. The garden seems strangely bereft now that they've moved on. I miss their cheerful ebullience, if not their early hours.

The oak titmice are back in possession of the garden, their harsh scolding cries are the dominant sound, forming a counterpoint to the Geiger-counter-like tick-tick-tick of the dark-eyed juncos and the chirping of the ever busy bushtits. 

The small but feisty oak titmouse is the undisputed boss of the garden at the moment. You can hear its distinctive voice here.

The crows, having spent the summer paired up raising their young, have begun gathering in the eucalyptus trees to conduct their end of summer conclaves. They fill the sky with dark wings and harsh calls, while below them, the air is alive with butterflies and dragonflies.

Last September, the Malibu Post took a look at a number of fall butterfly species in the entry called Folk of the Air. This year, autumn butterfly season seems to be peaking early. Here's a look at what we've seen so far.

This is the beautiful California sister, 
Adelpha californica. In the garden, it's drawn to water or mud, where it can be found "puddling, or sipping at the salts and minerals. They also seem to like ripe fruit, but the caterpillars feed exclusively on live oaks. 

The anise swallowtail, 
Papilio zelicaon, gets its name from its primary caterpillar host plant, although caterpillars can thrive on almost any member of the parsley and carrot family and even on some types of citrus. It's easy to distinguish this butterfly from the four other local species of swallowtail because the coloring is black and yellow, instead of yellow and black. Adults can be found anywhere there is a source of nectar and are common garden visitors, although this one was spotted at Malibu Bluffs Park.

This is the Western tiger swallowtail, Papilio rutulus, named for its tiger-like stripes. There's a paler and less common version of this species that is unimaginatively but accurately named the pale tiger swallowtail. This butterfly is often seen puddling at the edge of pools or on muddy ground. Unlike the anise swallowtail, tiger caterpillars feed on willow and cottonwood leaves. Adults are attracted to garden flowers. I photographed this one in the blueberry bushes at the Thorne Family Farm in Bonsall Canyon.

The mourning cloak, 
Nymphalis antiopa, seems to prefer tree sap to flower nectar, but they are sometimes found sampling the flowers in the garden and they appear to love the juice of overripe fruit. Mourning cloak caterpillars feed on willow leaves.

The Gulf fritillary butterfly, Agraulis vanillae, is native to Mexico and the American South, but the popularity of passion flower vines—the caterpillar's host—as a garden plant in California and other parts of the west has extended this colorful butterfly's range. Adult butterflies are attracted to garden flowers. This one is visiting a Cedros Island verbena we planted as a nectar plant on the advice of Bob Sussman, whose Marillija Nursery specializes in native and drought tolerant plants.

The light patches on the underside of the Gulf fritillary's wings are actually a metallic silver color.

The fiery skipper, 
Hylephila phyleusmay not be large and colorful, but it's by far the most common garden butterfly in Malibu. Like the fritillary, this skipper was attracted to the Cedros Island verbena. Native and lawn grass are the host plants for this prolific little butterfly.

We have a bewildering number of dragonfly species in Southern California, but I think this is a female variegated meadowhawk, Sympetrum corruptuma medium-sized dragonfly that is a common garden visitor. Males of this species are a vivid orange. 

This is a species of darning needle, or damselfly, the smaller cousin of the dragonflies. Instead of being constantly in motion, its hunting strategy seems to involve finding a good lookout post and waiting for its prey to come within striking distance. All dragonflies are exceptional hunters and many species love to feed on things that humans find annoying, like gnats and mosquitos, making them welcome garden residents.

Although the weather and the water are warm, there are signs of autumn at the beach as well. 

The terns are here, wheeling and diving and filling the air with their haunting cries. They have wide expanses of sand and sea to themselves for much of the day, now that most schools are back in session.

An elegant tern spies a fish, dives, and launches itself back into the air all in the space of seconds. You can see the water droplets in the last photo, as the bird somehow shifts from swimming to flying again. 

The end of summer signals the beginning of sunset season, as every evening the sun sets farther west.

In mid July, the sun still sets far to the northwest, behind the mountains. Having a large chunk of California in the way means that, no matter how much potential there may be for a good sunset—like this one, the mountains block the view from Malibu beaches.

By mid August, the sun is once again setting over the ocean. When conditions are right and there's just enough clouds to catch the light and not so many that they swallow the sun, spectacular sunsets are once again possible.

The sun may be setting on summer, but the best beach weather of the year and the most beautiful sunsets are still ahead.

We seem barraged this year by a rising tide of terrible news. It's easy to get distracted and discouraged, but we are blessed, too, to have beauty all around us, if we can just make—or take—the time to see it.  

September brings the best beach weather; October and November, the clearest skies; December, the most vivid sunsets. Right now the air is filled with the rustle and flutter of summer on the wing—beautiful and ephemeral. 

Suzanne Guldimann
23 August 2015

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Ad Astra

Like the backdrop for a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie, the rusting hulks of the Coca Test Stands loom 10 stories tall above the ancient stones and chaparral at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the mountains adjacent to the Santa Monica Mountains. The Apollo and Shuttle mission rocket engines were test fired here before launching their payloads and the dreams of a nation into space. The future of this site is uncertain, but there is a strong push to make at least part of the now defunct field laboratory into a National Monument, and to transform the rest of the 2850-acre site, which is critical habitat for everything from horned lizards to mountain lions, into parkland. Photo © 2015 S. Guldimann

The fence we walked between the years
Did balance us serene;
It was a place half in the sky where
In the green of leaf and promising of peach
We’d reach our hands to touch and almost touch the sky,
If we could reach and touch, we said,
‘Twould teach us, not to, never to be dead.
We ached, and almost touched that stuff;
Our reach was never quite enough.

If only we had taller been,
And touched God’s cuff, His hem,
We would not have to go with them
Who’ve gone before,
Who, short as we, stood tall as they could stand
And hoped by stretching tall to keep their land,
Their home, their hearth, their flesh and soul.
But they, like us, were standing in a hole.

O, Thomas, will a race one day stand really tall
Across the void, across the universe and all?
And, measured out with rocket fire,
At last put Adam’s finger forth
As on the Sistine Ceiling,
And God’s hand come down the other way
To measure man and find him good,
And gift him with forever’s day?

I work for that.
Short man, large dream.
I send my rockets forth between my ears,
Hoping an inch of good is worth a pound of years.
Aching to hear a voice cry back along the universal mall:
We’ve reached Alpha Centauri!
We’re tall, O God, we’re tall!

—Ray Bradbury, If Only We Had Taller Been, written on the arrival of Mariner 9 to Mars, 1971

The NASA test stands at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory are a tangible monument to the vision of the future that held wonders like the massive space station in this 1970s NASA artist visualization. It's the future we still haven't managed to achieve, but if we are not tall enough yet to reach the stars, the research conducted in our own backyard enabled us to touch the moon. Image: NASA Ames Research Center
Once upon a time, we were promised a different future, a bright, optimistic tomorrow, one with space stations and rockets bound for the final frontier. Instead, we inherited a post-modern world of wars and woes, but the ghost of that future, of mankind’s quest to reach the stars, still haunts the Los Angeles mountains and there’s a campaign to prevent it from being forgotten.

Before they moved to Malibu, my parents lived in the San Fernando Valley, not far from Rocketdyne’s Santa Susanna Field Laboratory. My mother still remembers how the sky turned orange and the ground shook when NASA was testing the rocket engines that would transport the Mercury and Apollo missions into space. 

Although Rocketdyne built the facility and Boeing currently owns it and is overseeing the decommissioning and decontamination of the site—a formidable undertaking, NASA still administers about 450 acres of the 2850-acre Santa Susana Field Laboratory, including the area with the rocket test sites. Here's an archival photo of a rocket test from the 1960s, borrowed from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Work Group website.

The field laboratory, also known as "the Hill," was built in 1947 by Rocketdyne, a division of North American Aviation. Today the site is an island of open space in a sea of mass development that stretches from the Simi Valley to the San Fernando Valley, but in the 1940s the mountaintop was remote and isolated. Liquid propellant rocket engine testing began at the SSFL in the late 1940s for the U.S. space program. Elements of almost every U.S. space project in the 20th century—from Mercury to the so-called "Star Wars Initiative"—were tested or developed in part at the laboratory. 

Workers position rocket engines at one of the test stands in this archival NASA photo.

There was a darker side to the research that went on up the mountain: contamination. From the early 1950s until 1980, as many as 10 low-power nuclear reactors were developed by the U.S. Department of Energy and operated at the site, which was also used for liquid metals research. 

An experimental liquid sodium nuclear reactor experienced a partial meltdown in 1959, spewing radioactive material into the atmosphere. It was the first of several reactor incidents.

Fuel from an estimated 30,000 rock tests and the chemicals used to flush the rocket engines have also contaminated the soil and the groundwater. Disposal techniques in the 1950s and '60s involved blowing things up or burning them in open pits—not one of the more forward-thinking approaches to highly toxic and potentially deadly industrial waste. 

According to the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Advisory Panel, over its lifetime, Area IV of SSFL was home to: "ten reactors, numerous “critical” facilities (a kind of low-power reactor), a plutonium fuel fabrication facility, a uranium carbide fuel fabrication facility, a “hot lab” (purportedly the largest in the country) for remotely cutting up irradiated nuclear fuel shipped in from around the country from other AEC/DOE nuclear facilities, and a sodium burn pit, in which sodium-coated objects were burned in open-air pits."

A map of Area IV showing the location of nuclear research areas, from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory Work Group website.

The report also states that at least four of the reactors suffered accidents and that radioactively and chemically contaminated items that were not supposed to be burned were burned there for decades, "causing extensive contamination of soil and groundwater and offsite migration in surface water runoff," and that "the accident history of the site is poorly understood, given the limited amount of disclosure that has occurred to date."

This building, one of just a few left in Area IV, was reportedly used for processing liquid sodium for the sodium reactors.

There's no way of knowing the extent of the impact in the community and to the workers who were exposed on site. One thing we do know is that people died as a result of that contamination and that thousands were exposed to an elevated risk of cancer. Lawsuits have been filed. The debate still rages and there are no easy solutions or answers.

Boeing acquired the facility—and 50 years of environmental contamination at the site—in 1996. The debate over clean up is ongoing, but it would be doubly tragic if the cleanup process eradicates the site's history. 

This U.S. Department of Energy photo shows the Energy Technology Engineering Center in 1990. This is Area IV, where most of the nuclear reactors were built and radioactive materials like uranium were stored and processed. Image: Wikipedia

This is Area IV today. The most severely contaminated structures have been entirely removed, although there are still reportedly isolated areas with elevated levels of radiation, including some in the nearby rock formations. Workers in this area have to wear radiation badges and be monitored, and it would probably not be a good idea to stop for a picnic and a nap, but we were assured that it's safe enough for visitors.

The clean-up process has proved complex and controversial. Some activists are calling for complete remediation, which would require removing vast quantities of soil and rock, potentially including archaeological sites and all of the remaining NASA structures. 

At the other end of the spectrum are preservationists who hope to see the NASA portions of the site, where the rocket engines for Mercury, Apollo and the Space Shuttle program were tested, preserved as a National Monument. This would entail cleaning the site to contamination levels safe for parkgoers, but not to "residential" levels.

The archaeological record reveals that for as much as eight thousand years, the
 Santa Susana Mountains were a sacred gathering place for the Chumash peoples and their ancestors. Long before Rocketdyne, NASA and Boeing appeared on the scene, the original residents of this remarkable place also  watched the stars. In addition to being one of the best-preserved rock art sites in North America, the Burro Flats Painted Cave is aligned to the winter solstice. This is still an important sacred site for the Chumash people and is off-limits to all visitors. The photo shown here is from the #SSFLNationalMonument campaign, and shows just a portion of the rock art.

Further complicating the clean up debate is an ancient and spectacular Chumash ceremonial site, which is a priceless cultural resource for the descendants of the Chumash, including the Santa Inez Band of Chumash, who are actively involved in the fight to preserve the cultural heritage of the site. The Burro Flats Painted Cave is on the National Register of Historic Places, and there is a move to seek UNESCO World Heritage status for the site. It's that important and significant.

The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the American Nuclear Society also recognize portions of the lab site as historically significant. It's unlikely that there is another place on earth with such a remarkable combination of historic significance.

It may not look like much, but that two-story building is where they processed and stored reactor cores. We were told that the shed next to it contains a deep cellar built into the bedrock and lined with aluminum. The self-contained nuclear reactors that powered the early satellites were tested there, with the help of a massive suction pump that sucked the air out of the chamber to simulate the vacuum of space. 

The ultimate goal is to make the 2850-acre SSFL site into open space—it's a vital wildlife corridor and a key section of the proposed Rim of the Valley Corridor, but how much of what is there now—space race artifacts, Chumash legacy, habitat that includes massive rock formations and unspoiled oak woodland, in addition to the pervasive contamination, is still being debated.

When I was invited to tour the lab with other members of the local media by the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation recently, friends and family teased that I would leave the experience glowing in the dark. I knew that the worst surface contamination has already been mopped up to levels that are safe for visitors and the employees that currently work at the site—Rocketdyne is long gone and the facility is currently operated by Boeing—but I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I found was something breathtakingly beautiful and profoundly sad.

I never found out what was stored in this huge hilltop tank, but it would be right at home on the cover of a sci fi paperback from the 1950s

I shared some of my experiences in an article for the Malibu Surfside News on the role of the local mountains in the development of space age technology, available here. The focus of that article was Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, where the laser and the atomic clock that led to GPS technology were developed in the 1960s, and the TRW satellite research facility at what is now Solstice Canyon Park.

These sites, together with the Santa Susana Field Laboratory and JPL in Pasadena, have the potential to all be included in the Rim of the Valley if the most inclusive plan—Option D—is approved. While JPL and HRL are still active research labs, they represent, together with the TRW site and the SSFL a significant chapter of American history that should be recognized and preserved.

I was able to include a quick mention of the campaign to make the SSFL into a space age historical monument, but there wasn't room for an in depth look at all the astonishing things I saw in the Santa Susana Mountains, which is why I’m glad to be able to share them here. 

The whole SSFL site is an odd juxtaposition of natural beauty and industrial development. The main parking area has a backdrop straight out of Arizona Highways. After a quick briefing on safety and history, we took our places on the bus for our tour. Most of the images in this blog post were shot through the window, but we did have opportunity to stop for a closer look at the two of the NASA rocket test sites.

This could be some quiet remote corner of the Eastern Sierra, instead of being at the edge one of the most densely populated parts of California...

...At least until you get a closer look at some of the industrial installations. Instead of mundane things like butane or water, these tanks once held rocket fuel for NASA's Alpha and Bravo test stands.

And then the first test stands come into view. These are the Alpha Stands, where the Mercury rocket engines were tested. It's like suddenly finding yourself on Tatooine, only this is science fact, not science fiction.

Here's what it looked like when tests were taking place. This is a photo of photos of rocket engines being test fired at Alpha Stands. The images are on display at the site to give visitors a feel for the history of the place.

This thing is enormous, it towers six stories overhead, and extends deep down into the canyon. We were told by our guide that the deep canyons enabled multiple activities to take place without the tests interfering with each other.

Everything was analog. Someone on the tour pointed out that a single smartphone probably has more computing power than the entire lunar landing program had at its disposal. 

We had special permission from NASA to visit the Coca Test Stands, which are even bigger and more impressive than the earlier Alpha stands. The Space Shuttle rocket engines and the Delta II rockets that carried the Apollo missions to the moon were tested here.

The scale of this place is overwhelmingly vast.

Flames and steam would have poured out of that vent during a test, but rust is already eroding this two-foot-thick slab of metal and signs of decay are everywhere. 

Many of the buildings at Area IV, where high levels of radioactive contamination were identified by the Department of Energy in 1989, have been removed so completely that no visible trace remains, but critics of the clean-up effort say the damage runs deep. The 2006 report by the independent Santa Susana Field Laboratory Advisory Panel found that "Safety considerations appear to have been subordinated to other interests from the outset." Ultimately, in a weird way, the contamination at the site may end up protecting it from becoming yet another overdeveloped suburb. 

The Santa Susanna Field Laboratory is critical wildlife habitat and open space; it's an ancient historic and sacred Chumash cultural resource that is part of the cultural heritage of the Chumash people who made Malibu their home; it's a monument to the American space race; and also a reminder that technology comes at a cost, and that is something that is critically important, as well.

Nature is already at work dissolving metal and breaking up concrete. In time—lots of time—even the radioactive elements will break down. In addition to becoming a monument to the space race and a world heritage site for its cultural treasure, the Santa Susanna Field Lab could be the first major U.S. Park to recognize the impact of industrialization on the environment and the lives it cost as something that needs to be remembered. It's a chance to learn from the past and apply what we learn to the future.
A petition requesting that President Obama designate the Santa Susana Field Laboratory a National Monument has received more than 1200 signatures and has already attracted the attention of NASA. More information on the campaign can be found here. 

“It’s two cultures reaching for the stars across time,” LVHF President Kim Lamorie told me on the tour, quoting preservation activist Don Wallace. “It’s phenomenal to have all of this history right here.” 

While it seems far removed from Malibu, the Santa Susana Mountains are really just next door as the proverbial crow flies and they are a key wildlife corridor that enables species like Malibu's mountain lions to maintain genetic diversity by dispersing from one mountain range to another. Preserving the entire 2850-acre field laboratory site as open space is critically important for the survival of wildlife but also for the good of the people of California.

Visitors explore NASA's Alpha test stands where rockets that sent some of the first humans into space were tested in the 1950s and '60s, while in the background, the stones of the mountains hold evidence of ancient astronomers, who also watched the sky and dreamed thousands of years ago.

Creating a Santa Susanna National Historic Monument would honor the Chumash people whose culture came so perilously close to extinction in the 20th century but is now experiencing a resurgence; it would honor those who lost their lives in the effort to reach the stars; and it would honor the work and effort that it took to get us to the moon, and help to make amends for the mess that was created as a consequence of that journey.

It's a tangible expression of Bradbury's "inch of good that's worth the pound of years," and if he were here he would have wanted to see this place preserved for the future, the one we haven't seen yet, the one that we all dream will be full of marvels.

Suzanne Guldimann
5 August 2015

The view across the Santa Susana Field Lab's undeveloped "buffer zone" of rolling hills, rock formations and oak trees  offers a glimpse of what almost all of the San Fernando Valley looked like less than a century ago. This place is rare and remarkable and worth preserving for future generations and as a record of the past, both bad and good. Ad astra, per aspera—to the stars through hardship.