Sunday, August 13, 2017

Malibu Bluffs Ark

 Image: Jan Brueghel, Paradise Landscape with Noah's Ark, from the collection of the Getty Museum.

No, the title of this post is not a typo. Ever since the City of Malibu swapped Charmlee Wilderness Park to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy in exchange for Bluffs Park Open Space in 2014, controversy has raged around the park's future. The five-year swap between the city and the SMMC was intended to allow both parties to examine how the swapped properties could be used. At Bluffs, the city's goal was to use the time to explore building sports facilities in the open space park. The key word is explore. The swap didn't come with any guarantees that development would be feasible.

A wish list for Bluffs Park at a workshop at Malibu City Hall, © 2017 S. Guldimann

The City of Malibu hired a consultant to develop a plan that included a wish list of recreation facilities. However, as Malibu city staff began meeting with California Coastal Commission staff to discuss the plan, they were made aware of the extent of the constraints on the site. The city's plans for the park went from this:

To this:

Critics of the athletic facility expansion argue that even the revised project has too great an impact on environmental resources and does not adequately meet the city's environmentally sensitive habitat area setback requirements.

Proponents of the plan are upset by the prospect of downscaling or relocate some of the desired facilities elsewhere. In a recent editorial, the publisher of the Malibu Times argued that every potential site in Malibu has issues:
"Every site they choose has its problems: construction problems, size problems, noise problems, neighbor problems, access problems, parking problems and so on, and there will always be a reason not to do it."
That's certainly true, but not every site is also mapped Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area, home to as many as eight California special concern species, and a foraging area for a species of raptor with special protections. 

Not every site was originally purchased with taxpayer-funded bond money to be open space as part of the Coastal Commission's first priority acquisitions list under the Coastal Act. 

And while we're at it, not many sites have as many geological issues, including active landslides and the section of the Malibu Coast Earthquake Fault that prevented this parcel from being developed in the first place. 

Geology isn't our focus with this post, but it's worth spending a moment reflecting on it. The bluffs that give this park its name are still eroding due to active landslide zones. Here's the view from the top:

Bluffs Park erosion, © 2107 S. Guldimann
Here's the view from Malibu Road, where a landslide has been reactivated by the past winter's rains. There are six landslide faults along Malibu Road in Bluffs Park.

Malibu Road landslide, winter 2017. © S. Guldimann

The yellow dotted lines on the geology map, below, indicate the landslide zones in Bluffs Park, the arrows show the direction of the slide. That big black dotted line running through the middle of the park is the Malibu Coast Fault, an offshoot of the San Andreas Fault, and one of the reasons the Santa Monica Mountains—and Malibu—run east-west, instead of north-south.

The geology that prevented this site from being developed first as a General Motors facility that would have been similar in scope to the Hughes lab up the hill, and then as a housing tract like the one next to Pepperdine, is part of what makes this small pocket of open space unusual. The deep ravines and sloping coastal terraces, volcanic intrusions and alluvial soils are critical habitat for species that can't survive elsewhere, and that is the main point of this post. 

At a recent Malibu Parks and Recreation Commission meeting, the majority of the commissioners weren't aware of one of the main issues with the park plan: not the geology, but the presence of special concern species in the area proposed for development. If they weren't aware of this, then most Malibu residents probably aren't, either. 

Four California Special Concern Species were identified at Bluffs Park in 2010 during a biology survey for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy's camping plan environmental impact report:

1. Catalina Mariposa Lily. This etherial flower landed on the California Species of Special Concern list because of habitat loss. It grows from a bulb deep in the earth and can remain dormant for long periods when conditions aren't right. In a good year, hundreds bloom in Bluffs Park.
Bluffs Park Mariposa Lilies © 2017 S. Guldimann

2. Blainville Coast Horned Lizard. In more than a decade as as environmental journalist and photographer I've built a fairly substantial library of plant and animal photos. The horned lizard isn't in that collection, because I haven't seen one in years, despite the fact that this small lizard was still fairly common when I was a child. It is plummeting towards extinction throughout its range at a frightening rate due to loss of habitat and the introduction of a highly aggressive and invasive ant species that drives out the native ants that are this lizard's only source of food.

Image: USGS

3. Yellow-breasted Chat. You are more likely to hear the chat than see it, despite its bright yellow breast. This is a shy scrub dweller that likes the safety of the willows and laurel sumacs in Bluff Park's riparian area. It is on the special concern list primarily due to habitat loss.

Image: wikipedia

4. California Yellow Warbler. The tiny yellow warbler depends on the same kind of riparian woodland the chat requires, and like the chat its numbers have plummeted in California due to (surprise!) habitat loss.

Image: Wikipedia

There are the two additional California special concern plant species documented on site by the California Native Plant Society in the past year, according to a report they submitted to the city:

5. Dudleya Cymosa, spp ovatifolia. There are several dudleya species at Bluffs. This one may be the smallest, but it is also the rarest. Also known as Santa Monica Mountains dudleya, it grows only in the coast ranges from Ventura to Orange County, with the highest concentrations right here in and around the Malibu area. This dudleya is on the rare plant list because of its limited distribution and, yes, loss of habitat.

Image: NPS

6. Plummer's Baccharis. This rare plant is also limited to the south coast ranges, although it occurs on some of the Channel Islands. Like the dudleya, it is on the special concern list due to its limited distribution and habitat loss. Plants like this can only grow in highly specific conditions, putting them at increased risk not only from habitat loss but also climate change.

Image: Anthony Valois,  NPS

The presence of these six specially listed species at Malibu Bluffs Park Open Space is fully documented by qualified experts. Their presence in the park is scientific fact. 

Reliable witnesses have added the Coastal whiptail lizard and the loggerhead shrike to the park's menagerie of protected species, giving us a total of eight California Special Concern Species in Bluffs Park.

The shy and retiring coastal whiptail lizard is rarely seen except in spring during mating season. This beautiful  and amazing lizard was missed by the SMMC's EIR, but has reportedly been spotted at the park by a recent observer. Habitat loss has pushed this once-common species almost entirely out of the Malibu coastal zone. When the last remaining viable habitat is developed or fragmented it will have nowhere to go. The only voice it has is our voice. Photo @ 2017 S. Guldimann

I photographed this loggerhead shrike not at Bluffs, but at the city's recently acquired Trancas Fields Park—the other potential site for ballfields. The birds were spotted this winter at both parks. Like the other special concern species, this fierce little bird, which preys on snakes and lizards nearly its own size, is increasingly at risk from habitat loss. It's not adaptable. When it is pushed out of the only kind of habitat it can survive in, it can't move on. It simply dies out. Photo © 2017 S. Guldimann

The survey conducted by biologist Kathleen Dayton on April 26–28, 2010, for the Conservancy's EIR, also noted that another listed species of plant, Coulter’s saltbrush, had previously been observed at the site, and that another rare bird, the coastal California gnatcatcher, “cannot be ruled out,” although neither species was observed during her survey. 

There's another species  with special protections who is regularly seen foraging in the fields at Bluffs Park Open Space: the white-tailed kite. 

Every year, white-tailed kites winter at Bluffs Park, using the now-dead eucalyptus trees as a lookout and foraging in the open space park's fields for their prey. Photo © 2017 S. Guldimann

At its August 10 meeting at King Gillette Ranch, right here in the Santa Monica Mountains, the California Coastal Commission unanimously supported special protections for white-tailed kite foraging areas in an amendment to Santa Barbara County's Local Costal Program. South Coast Director Steve Hudson described the birds as rare and special, and made a point of stating that their foraging areas require protection from development.

Bluffs Park is home to an amazing number of threatened, protected, and rare species in a small area and there may still be more that have not been identified—species that have returned or recovered following the 2007 fire, but there's another major environmental obstacle for development in the park. Here's a photo of city officials standing in the middle of it right after the swap took place:

First Official City of Malibu Bluffs Park Tour, 2014, Image © S. Guldimann

The group shown above, which included former City Manager Jim Thorsen and two Malibu City Council members, was standing in the center of fields of native needle grass, talking  about plans for ballfields, oblivious to the rare habitat under their feet. 

In a 2003 memorandum to Coastal Commission Staff on ESHA in the Santa Monica Mountains, ecologist John Dixon stated: “Native perennial grasslands are now exceedingly rare. In California, native grasslands once covered nearly 20 percent of the land area, but today are reduced to less than 0.1 percent. The California Natural Diversity Database lists purple needle grass habitat as a community needing priority monitoring and restoration.”

Native needle grass may not look impressive, but its presence at Bluffs is important.

Purple Needlegrass, Image © 2017 S. Guldimann

According to the California Coastal Commission document, “grasslands with 10 percent or more cover by needle grass [are] significant. The memo recommends that this habitat be protected as "remnants of original California prairie," and concludes that "patches of this sensitive habitat occur throughout the Santa Monica Mountains.”

Purple Needlegrass at Bluffs Park © 2017 S. Guldimann

Needlegrass was lush and abundant at Bluffs Park this spring. This whole meadow of it is right where a parking lot is proposed, and there appears to be a much higher concentration of it than just 10 percent. Recent surveys conducted by the California Native Plant Society indicate that the Malibu Bluffs Park wildfire burn area, which was damaged in 2007 and contained extensive areas of native grassland as well as coastal sage scrub, is making a strong recovery. Species that weren't observed during the 2010 SMMC EIR study due to the fire, are reportedly making a comeback. 

We spend a lot of time talking about ESHA in Malibu, but there are some strange misconceptions about it. A former local politician who really ought to have known better recently argued that disturbed ESHA is no longer ESHA, and that the part of the park damaged during the 2007 fire ought to be fair game for development. That's not how it works. 

  1. Areas in which plant or animal life or their habitats are either rare or especially valuable because of their special nature or role in an ecosystem and which could be easily disturbed or degraded by human activities and developments are Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas (ESHAs) and are generally shown on the LUP ESHA Map. 

    The LUP also states: 

    1. 3.4  Any area not designated on the LUP ESHA Map that meets the ESHA criteria is ESHA and shall be accorded all the protection provided for ESHA in the LCP. The following areas shall be considered ESHA, unless there is compelling site-specific evidence to the contrary:
      • Any habitat area that is rare or especially valuable from a local, regional, or statewide basis.
      • Areas that contribute to the viability of plant or animal species designated as rare, threatened, or endangered under State or Federal law.
      • Areas that contribute to the viability of species designated as Fully Protected or Species of Special Concern under State law or regulations.
      • Areas that contribute to the viability of plant species for which there is compelling evidence of rarity, for example, those designated 1b (Rare or endangered in California and elsewhere) or 2 (rare, threatened or endangered in California but more common elsewhere) by the California Native Plant Society.

    2. And also:

    3. 3.6  Any area mapped as ESHA shall not be deprived of protection as ESHA, as required by the policies and provisions of the LCP, on the basis that habitat has been illegally removed, degraded, or species that are rare or especially valuable because of their nature or role in an ecosystem have been eliminated. 

Almost the entire Bluffs Park, including the area where new ballfields and parking lots are proposed, is designated ESHA on the city's official map. It's the green area under the word "coast" in the map, above. 

The presence of all of this ESHA at Bluffs Park and the threatened species that depend on it for existence raise some interesting ethical questions. It's a kind of microcosm of the political perspective that takes the position that human desires deserve to take precedence over environmental concerns, that the reward now will be greater than the price we may pay later. 

Here in California we are constantly reminded of what is at stake. It's right there on our state flag:

The last documented native California grizzly bear was killed in August of 1922, less than a hundred years ago.  Today, this species lives on only as a symbol of what was lost, but hopefully also as a reminder of what we still stand to lose. 

My dad worked hard to save the Point Dume headlands from becoming first a hotel, and then a California State Parks beach parking lot. He was part of the effort to put both Point Dume and the Bluffs on the Coastal Commission's first priority acquisitions list. No one today would think a parking lot was a good use for what is now the Point Dume Nature Preserve. 

In the 1970s, the county thought it would be a good idea to bulldoze what is now the Point Dume Preserve and turn it into a large paved parking lot. It didn't happen because activists with clearer vision prevailed. @ 2017 S. Guldimann

The Adamson House was also scheduled to become a beach parking lot. The fight to save it was led by Judge John Merrick. It's a landmark, a museum, a priceless cultural resource today, but it also almost ended up being a parking lot, not because State Parks is evil—it's not—but because a decision was made somewhere on paper, without actually looking at and understanding what was at stake. That forgotten and ignominious planner was right, we do need more beach parking, but not at the expense of something that can't be replaced once lost.

The Adamson House, once destined to be torn down for a parking lot. © 2017 S. Guldimann

We've created a world where nature is increasing forced into islands of parkland, arks as much as parks that contain the remnants of a vanishing world. However, as natural resources continue to diminish, we seem to be increasingly looking towards the places we set aside with different goals in mind. The new fight to save the national monuments and parks from oil exploration and mining is the big example, but even a tiny park like Malibu Bluffs Park can highlight this dichotomy. 

Malibu's mission statement, General Plan, and Local Coastal Plan all place an emphasis on protecting environmentally sensitive habitat area. It's a key element of the Coastal Act. Either something is ESHA or it isn't. If it is, it needs to be protected from all development, not just from development we don't want. Otherwise, what's the point? 

This isn't just an argument over maps with red and purple lines, it's about the environmental impacts of replacing this:

Bluffs Park Meadow © 2017 S. Guldimann

With this:

Bluffs Park Ballfields © 2017 S. Guldimann

Whether or not that change is compatible in any realistic way with the continued survival of the special concern species that have been documented on the site remains to be seen, but it's unrealistic to claim that there will be no impact. Coastal Commission staff have already made it clear that there are substantial issues. Ultimately, ESHA will be the deciding factor in the debate over Bluffs. 

Bluffs Park Path © 2017 S. Guldimann

Malibu Bluffs Park Open Space is an island in a rapidly changing landscape, an ark that carries a fragile living cargo. Maybe the fate of a small lizard or a rare flower doesn't matter equally to everyone, but these animals and plants have special protections at the state level and that's because they are balanced on the edge of extinction. And this time it isn't some soulless corporation or profit-obsessed developer who is conspiring to help shove them over, it's us—the people of Malibu who have always worked together to combat pollution, protect resources and open space, and fight for environmental justice, except, I guess, when there's something we want badly enough to look the other way. 

What happens to Bluffs Park Open Space has serious consequences that go far beyond local wants or desires. We all need to rise above politics-as-usual and work together to find a viable solution that provides athletic facilities without sacrificing environmental resources. To do that fairly and thoroughly those resources—lizard, bird, flower and leaf of grass—have to be a major part of the discussion, otherwise all that talk about stewardship and environmental responsibility is just talk.

Bluffs Park Open Space Park © 2017 S. Guldimann


  1. Suzanne, can you comment on the "ballfield" components? I have heard that IF these ballfields go in that they will use a type of "Astro-turf," synthetic grass. In that, the use and care requires the artificial turf be washed off weekly to ensure durability. There is also the added information that in washing it off it does release large traces of chemical residues/components? What pray tell will my Fall and Winter lobster taste like, from the eventual downstream drainage? Similar areas in Central California have been spared this fate. North of Cambria, Piedras Blancas, Fiscalini Ranch Reserve and San Simeon. Is not our last coastal bluff area not just as beautiful? Just as important?

  2. Sure Bill, one of the reasons the city is pushing for ballfields at Bluffs is the almost unlimited supply of treated water that will be available when the sewer system goes on line. I suspect your lobsters won't have to worry about astroturf runoff, and with luck, any new fields will be pesticide and synthetic fertilizer-free, but some Malibu road residents are concerned that the amount of water necessary for ballfields could cause the landslide faults under the central mesa to reactivate.

    To your second issue, the majority of the city council apparently don't see the value of the bluffs either for their beauty or their biological diversity, that's a big part of the problem. To them it's just vacant land. Lou La Monte dismissed the open space as not worth preserving on Monday because it's "not the Amazon." He was apparently unaware that the Amazon is facing the same kind of piecemeal destruction and habitat fragmentation that we are imposing on Malibu, only on a much larger scale.

    There will be several opportunities for everyone to weigh in on the EIR process, and there is also also the possibility of a CEQA lawsuit if the city fails to adequately address the environmental concerns. When the Coastal Commission hears the project it can opt to scale back if the issues that have already been identified can't be mitigated. It's going to be lengthy process, no matter what the outcome, and I know the conservation community will keep fighting to the end.

    East West Ranch up in Cambria is one of favorite places on earth. It's inspiring to know what a community can achieve when they value nature and are willing to work together to conserve it for everyone, not just the privileged few.

    1. Fields of astro turf may not require pesticides as the ball field proponents claim, but the runoff from them will contain large amounts of plastic micro fibers and other components of their manufacture that will affect the Bluffs and the ocean below. Additionally, astro turf has a tendency to breed algae, fungus and mold that is abated with, wait for it, pesticides. Astro turf is another "suburban amenity" that Malibu's Mission Statement abjures.

  3. Good points, Unknown. Often unsafe lead levels, too. And athletes who play on astroturf have an increased risk of concussion and other injuries, as well.

  4. The most maddening aspect of Suzanne's work on this subject is that it once again shows that residents of Malibu, on their own time and on their own dime, turn out better, clearer, and more understandable presentations than the hired consultants to whom our city gives our money - millions of dollars - ever generate. If anyone wants to form a group to press the Council to stop the knee jerk RFP process every time they want a study and to consider paying US to implement local analysis, count me in.

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  6. This Malibu bluffs park is one of the old one of the California Property Maps but there has not been development and there has really odd future we have seen for this side.