We had been walking for only a few minutes when Scott Culbertson stopped in front of a field of twisted, blackened bark.
“I haven’t been here since the fire,” the executive director of the Friends of Ballona Wetlands told me, scowling at the destruction from behind dark sunglasses.
Three months ago, this spot in the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve in Playa del Rey had been a stand of native willow trees and other vegetation where endangered songbirds would nest. Then, one sunny afternoon, a brush fire broke out and scorched five acres before firefighters could put it out.
I know because I watched from my apartment as the smoke billowed across Lincoln Boulevard and helicopters crisscrossed the air dropping water.
I wasn’t surprised that a homeless person was eventually blamed as a likely source for the fire and neither was Culbertson.
For about a year, his nonprofit and the smaller Ballona Wetlands Conservancy have been scrambling to help mitigate the extensive environmental damage caused by the occupants of an encampment that has mushroomed along Jefferson Boulevard, just west of Lincoln Boulevard.
It’s a relatively small group of homeless people, a few dozen at most. Nothing compared with the 2,000 camping a few miles away in Venice. But their forays into the fragile ecological reserve and, more frequently, the adjacent freshwater marsh have had disastrous effects that could take years to fix — and might not be fixable.
“Individuals are entering the marsh to bathe,” Culbertson told me. “Dogs are being let loose to chase wildlife. We’ve seen needles. They’re using the area as a bathroom. They’re dumping their septic tanks on the street. We’re seeing that trees are being cut down.”
But despite all that, he rejects the idea that a choice needs to be made between protecting the environment and being sensitive to the needs of homeless people.
Across Los Angeles, the housed battle the unhoused over having to share public spaces. But keeping the wetlands pristine for visitors and wildlife, and helping vulnerable people get stable don’t have to be mutually exclusive goals. And as Culbertson and I learned on our walk last week, some of those who live alongside the marsh care just as much about its health and beauty as environmentalists do.
We crunched along the trail, through one gate and then another, until the mud-stained wood chips gave way to hard-packed dirt. The incessant sound of traffic had slowly disappeared, replaced by the sound of squawking and cooing.
The freshwater marsh, which was created independent of the reserve in 2003 and provides natural treatment for stormwater runoff from the Playa Vista area, is a hot spot for birders. More than 250 species have been documented there so far. Culbertson, a genial, gray-haired Venice resident, is quick to point out that his background is in business, not science, but nevertheless he identified many birds he knew as we walked.
“If we were here in the morning, you need ear plugs,” he said, sticking his index fingers into his ears. “They get so loud.”
This is what Culbertson would prefer to be doing — showing off the enduring beauty of the Ballona Wetlands, something he hasn’t been able to do much of since the arrival of COVID-19.
First, the nonprofit had to shut down its in-person educational programming, eliminating some of the foot traffic that had once served as a deterrent to homeless encampments. Then, in accordance with public health orders, police stopped issuing tickets and towing people who parked overnight on Jefferson Boulevard alongside…