Babes in the Wetlands

Name: 4th and 5th graders at The Open Charter School, Los Angeles. What They Do: While learning the three R’s, these kids get their hands dirty — and take on developers, politicians, and Hollywood bigwigs — to help save an endangered ecosystem.

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In the spring of 1995, the 4th and 5th graders in Barbara Moreno and Judy Utvich’s “cluster” classroom at The Open Charter School took a two-hour walk through the Ballona Wetlands, several hundred acres of coastal saltwater marsh surrounded by Los Angeles and its suburbs. A heavy rain had fallen throughout the previous day, and by morning the marshlands were lush with moisture, the buckwheat and cordgrass teeming with herons and other wetland wildlife. The field trip, led by a docent from the National Audubon Society, made an indelible impression: The students, says co-teacher Utvich, were “transfixed and enthralled.”

What the kids couldn’t know was that they were about to create their own crash course in civic participation and environmental activism, kicking off an exchange of letters, debates, and high-level meetings involving developers, major environmental groups, an L.A. city councilwoman, and entertainment titan DreamWorks SKG.

In the weeks after their wetlands visit, the youngsters (and their teachers) were dismayed to learn that DreamWorks SKG intended to build a massive $200 million studio as part of the Playa Vista project — a proposed development of more than 5 million square feet of shops, homes, and offices on 1,087 acres between Marina del Rey and the Los Angeles International Airport. Though the DreamWorks studio itself would not be built on the Ballona Wetlands, other parts of the $8 billion Playa Vista development would be.

Determined to help the wetlands, the 64 students sat down and wrote letters to each of the DreamWorks SKG principals — Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg — expressing their fears about the project’s effect on the birds and other animals and plants native to the delicate marsh habitat, and recounting their visit to Ballona in pictures and poems.

Like a pebble tossed into a pond, the students’ messages rippled quickly through the community. DreamWorks, flustered by the wave of student letters, faxed copies to Doug Gardner, manager of the Playa Vista project for Los Angeles developer Maguire Partners. Gardner contacted the students’ principal, claiming that the letters were one-sided, then offered to meet with the students and their teachers to discuss their misgivings.

When the students met with Gardner at the Playa Vista offices, they examined detailed maps and models of the plan, discussed the environmental and social factors Playa Vista had taken into account, and questioned the project’s ability to protect the designated wetlands: With so many more people and cars, wouldn’t that have an effect on the quality of the air the birds breathe? Wouldn’t the noise pollution interrupt the nesting birds? How are they going to keep the dogs and cats out of the wetlands? Doesn’t the president know about this?

The fact-finding missions didn’t end there. By the end of the year, the students had spoken face-to-face with almost all the key players except DreamWorks, including the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands and the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club. Playa Vista has long been a bone of contention between local environmental groups. On one side, organizations such as Friends of Ballona Wetlands, Heal The Bay, and the National Audubon Society argue that the project, which has agreed to spend $12.5 million to restore 188 acres of officially designated wetlands, will provide critical wildlife habitat, which currently is drying up due to poorly placed flood gates which prevent a natural tidal flush. On the other side, Citizens United to Save All of Ballona, a coalition group of more than 70 community and environmental organizations including the Surfrider Foundation and the local Sierra Club chapter, seek to preserve the entire 1,087 acres from development. They say Playa Vista will interrupt the Pacific Flyway, the path for migratory birds along the coast, and that the $12.5 million restoration will not adequately protect native waterfowl and shorebirds from the congestion and pollution of a community that expects to house 30,000 people and attract another 20,000 workers per day.

To cap it all off, City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who has consistently endorsed the Playa Vista venture, contacted the students’ teacher and met with the class to discuss the economic and political criteria that led her to support the development. She later invited the students to visit her at City Hall and take a tour of the internal workings of city government.

The students’ engagement didn’t just end with meetings. They have made at least six trips to the wetlands, studying issues of ecology, ethno-diversity, and bioregionality. At the end of the last school year, the students organized three rounds of inter-class debate, arguing the merits and drawbacks of Playa Vista before a jury made up of parents and other members of the community. The first time, the developers’ side won; the second and third times, the environmentalists prevailed.

Open Charter School’s principal, Dr. Grace Arnold, is pleased with the students’ involvement in Ballona and sees it as an effective way for them to learn about civic responsibility and participation. “We want children to be empowered and to express their views.”

Last fall, after receiving a grant from the California Office of Environmental Education, the class built a mini-wetland at the school, relocating a classroom and tearing up asphalt to break ground. Next year the class plans to study oceans and learn more about the Pacific Flyway, but their interest in Ballona remains strong. Another batch of letters, composed in the hectic rush of the last days before summer break, are waiting to be mailed off to DreamWorks.


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