|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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
The City of Malibu's Coastal Land Use Plan defines ESHA as:
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:
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
Areas that contribute to the viability of species designated as Fully
Protected or Species of Special Concern under State law or
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.
- Any habitat area that is rare or especially valuable from a local, regional, or statewide basis.
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
- 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:
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|
|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|