Invasive Weeds Breed Toxic Debate

Citizens Group Gets Stay Against Herbicides in Watershed


By Susan Chasen

It's as if the controversy over illegal immigration has gone underground, taken root and re-sprouted as unwelcome weeds crowding out native populations.

The language is strangely familiar. There are "non-native" plants or "immigrant" plants, even "naturalized" plants, from all around the globe.

VOL.25 NO. 18
September 6 - 19, 2001


Perhaps the most surprising parallel, however, is the passion currently raging over what to do about them. Some are deemed to be "aggressive," "troublesome," "intrusive" or "invasive"---the state's definition of a "noxious weed"--and they are widely agreed to be a threat to native species and the eco-system that depends on them.


Arundo donax has been named "Los Angeles County's worst weed."

Even Topangans generally agree that Arundo donax, the giant reed growing rampant in riparian areas, is overwhelming other species and inhibiting a healthy biodiversity. But the divide over what to do couldn't be deeper. Some are willing to use chemical herbicides to eradicate the unwanted plants because they see no realistic alternatives. But some are not and are pushing for Topanga to take the lead in pursuing chemical-free alternatives even if it means much more physical work.


It began with suspicions by herbicide opponents that the Resource Conservation District (RCD) was seeking grants for eradication projects and would be using herbicides. And, while being dubbed "paranoid" by some at the RCD, they may not have been all wrong. Statements from key players at the RCD indicate strong support for eradicating Arundo using a "cut and paint" method in which the giant, cornstalk-looking plant is cut off near the base and herbicide quickly painted on the stem in hopes of poisoning the rhizome below.

Since the Topanga Watershed Committee is a consensus-based operation, these concerns have been enough to create a local stalemate on the issue for now, but with plenty of bad feelings on both sides.

David Gottlieb, a 20-year RCD board member, said Topanga may end up being the only watershed in the state with an out-of-control Arundo infestation.

But the most tangible result of this stand-off has been the temporary suspension of plans to use herbicides against Arundo and other non-native species in Lower Topanga as part of a Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy grant from the California Coastal Conservancy. This project, involving the upper two-thirds of the property, has the distinction apparently of taking both sides by surprise.

"We would have been in the money right now," said Paul Edelman, chief of natural resources and planning for the Mountains Conservancy. "It sounds like a pretty big impasse."

According to Edelman, when the Conservancy learned of strong objections in Topanga, the project was put on hold in hopes that a consensus could be reached in the community first. He is waiting for a two-day workshop in Topanga on invasive plants titled "Home Away from Home--Non-natives in Topanga" planned for February 1 and 2 before deciding what to do.

"We figured that was the right place to vet that issue," said Edelman. "If they are right then more power to them for raising a red flag."

However, at this point Edelman does not believe opponents of herbicide use are right.

"All the science contradicts some of those people," said Edelman. "You can't really make a meaningful dent in Arundo without herbicides."

At the same time, he acknowledged that he hadn't yet read their scientific literature citing harmful effects of herbicides and said he would do so.

Edelman also pointed to the success of a Mountains Restoration Trust's major Arundo eradication effort last year involving spraying of herbicide in Malibu Creek from Piuma Road to the ocean. There was "zero protest," noted Edelman.

And now, he said, "There's more Steelhead."


According to Ray Smith, the worst weed in the state is Yellow Star Thistle.

And the second worst weed is Cape Ivy.

In addition to Arundo, which is identified as Los Angeles County's worst noxious weed, Cape Ivy and a species of Yellow Star Thistle--a terrible problem statewide that is different than the local, non-native Yellow Star Thistle also known as Tocalote--are also targets for eradication projects. Other targets in the Conservancy's Lower Topanga project include Spanish Broom, Castor Bean, Tree Tobacco, Vinca and a few Palm trees.

He said no other trees are targeted, but that the RCD had sought funding to remove Eucalyptus trees on the property as part of its lagoon restoration feasibility study. That part of the project was not funded, he said.


Topanga's opposition to herbicide use is spearheaded by the Santa Monica Mountains Coalition for Alternatives to Toxics (SCAT), founded by longtime Topangan Rabyn Blake and activist Steve Hoye, and includes Topanga Association for a Scenic Community (TASC) and several other local organizations.

In addition to the Conservancy project, SCAT is also wary of the new county Weed Management Area (WMA), comprised of interested citizens, landowners and agencies, that exists to share information and coordinate funding and eradication efforts often involving herbicides.

With the current crusade against invasive plants gaining momentum, and funding opportunities hanging in the balance, SCAT is under pressure to come up with hand crew or other eradication alternatives. However, SCAT contends that the urgency surrounding this issue is driven in part by the quest for grant money.

"Restoration is a good word," said Steve Hoye. "It attracts money."


Hoye agrees that Arundo "is bad news," but he also argues that current eradication strategies are influenced by chemical companies seeking new sales opportunities from environmental causes such as habitat protection that once were their nemesis.

"We hope environmental agencies don't put getting things done ahead of getting things done right," said Hoye.

Chemical giant Monsanto Corporation has been supporting environmental groups and special Arundo removal teams using the company's herbicide products Round-up and Rodeo, according to Hoye.

The bargain Monsanto is striking, says Hoye, is, "If you use our product then we're going to give you a hand getting rid of your invasives."

And it's a bargain for a product that reportedly generates 60 percent of the company's net income, said Hoye, citing a recent Los Angeles Times article. "People become hooked on it...Quite frankly, a lot of us are looking for a different model."

Rabyn Blake is fearful that urgency to remove non-native species will lead to unintended consequences not unusual in resource management work. Arundo itself was reportedly introduced by public agencies for erosion control.

"It's 'the perfect thing' now," said Blake of the enthusiasm for herbicide use. "But in 20 years, will it be 'Sorry we made a mistake'? Are we going to end up with the opposite of what they are promising?"

Among the feared consequences are increased flood and erosion hazards for residents near the creek if replacement vegetation isn't immediately provided and quick to establish itself and dying plant material removed. Also, SCAT is concerned that wildlife may be depending on some non-natives and might do better with a more gradual approach to the replacement. According to SCAT, environmental studies are needed before large-scale eradication is attempted.

According to Blake's research, the best to hope against Arundo is control rather than eradication, so repeated use of herbicide or repeated removal by hand are required in either case. But she said evidence suggests herbicides lose effectiveness, leading to heavier chemical use and possibly clearing the way for worse weeds.

"We want to see a toxics-free watershed," said Blake. "This isn't just a couple of people whining, this is a whole community....No toxics should be a total political win."

She called use of herbicides a "quick fix" that is antithetical to what she believed was intended by the community's effort to create its own environmentally-geared Watershed Management Plan, which is now nearing completion.

SCAT has proposed that work crews--perhaps youths needing jobs--could be hired to join with community groups in removal efforts. Blake, Hoye and TASC chair Roger Pugliese have met with representatives of Assemblymember Fran Pavley and plan a meeting with state Senator Sheila Kuehl next month to discuss creating an alternative model in Topanga for controlling invasive plants.

At the center of SCAT's objection to herbicide use are harmful health effects from glyphosate, a key ingredient in popular herbicides Round-up and Rodeo, as well as evidence of persistence of the chemical in the environment. In addition, according to the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, glyphosate and the surfactant additive that assists the poison in penetrating into the plant system also threaten beneficial insects, micro-organisms, earthworms, fish, small mammals and birds, both from direct exposure, habitat impacts and habitat loss.

"The Monsanto studies make it look like vitamin syrup," said Blake.

Some opponents also question whether non-native plants are being demonized out of a puritanical strain of environmentalism, even when they are not invasive. This approach includes removal of non-natives on principle, and extends even to mature trees if they are non-native, while more significant ongoing impacts from human residential, commercial and transportation uses are accepted.

In the popular book, "Flowering Plants" published by the California Native Plant Society in 1986 and covering over 200 plants common to the Santa Monica Mountains, at least 15 percent of the entries are identified as non-native. They include Mustard, Horehound, Tree Tobacco, Rock Rose, Scarlet Pimpernel, Red-stemmed Filaree and many other familiar plants of the local landscape. Eucalyptus and many Pine trees also are non-natives.

TASC chair Roger Pugliese said it does come down to philosophy. One could say, "Arundo is everywhere. So what?"

At the same time, he urged that SCAT recognize the honest motives of their adversaries on this issue.

"I'm sure there are some real dedicated people who go to work everyday feeling like they're doing God's work," said Pugliese.


At an August 27 meeting of Topanga's Invasive Plant Sub-Committee, however, the tension in the little RCD room was thick and little was accomplished as opposing sides faced off over several issues.

Plans to map invasive plants along Topanga Creek brought objections from creek side residents fearful that cooperation today might lead to enforcement tomorrow.

"I'm very paranoid of this 'we want to map for your own good' idea," said Angela Slater, of the Topanga Creekside Homeowners' Association. "I don't want to be denuded and then, 'Well, you're on your own now honey.'"

Slater recalled her experience when the county's floodway mapping efforts nearly destroyed the value of her property. "We were literally shafted."

TASC board member David Totheroh questioned the need for mapping. "If the goal is voluntary eradication, why do mapping?" asked Totheroh.

But according to RCD conservation biologist Rosi Dagit, mapping is needed to fund removal efforts in the two-thirds of the watershed that is State Parks' property. She also suggested that some grant programs might be pursued for assistance to individual homeowners.

Bill Neill, a member of Orange County's Weed Management Area, said that in his experience mapping is not necessary.

"It doesn't matter where you start, because you have to maintain anyway," said Neill. As a voluntary effort, Neill said, it is best to begin with willing homeowners and demonstration projects and build from there.

Tricia Watts, RCD education coordinator, announced that Froggy's owner Lance Roberts has agreed to allow a demonstration project in alternative eradication behind the restaurant.

Gottlieb said he is open to the RCD pursuing funding for alternative strategies as well, but he thinks limiting herbicide use to the "cut and paint" method and prohibiting spraying is a good compromise that would allow work to go forward.

"I'm not for the wholesale use of herbicide against Arundo," said Gottlieb. "What we need is very professional, very specific use of this herbicide by people who care about this Canyon and people who are careful."

Gottlieb said he has no sympathy for the chemical companies, which he believes accept excessive and irresponsible use of their products on American farms where they end up in the food supply, and even more careless use in other countries. Recently, he said they appear to be promoting ordinary home use of herbicides.

"I hate the chemical companies," said Gottlieb. "I would be the last person in the world to defend them." But, he says he doesn't think they're after the scarce dollars in the environmental restoration market.

"They don't need our business," contends Gottlieb. "The chemicals are being used too much, but in this case it might be one of the few cases where it might be absolutely necessary.


Another factor that may have a dramatic effect on options for herbicide use in the watershed, however, is a ruling earlier this year from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in an Oregon case. The ruling essentially classifies all pesticides--which includes herbicides-- as pollutants requiring special discharge permits for use in waterways. It received some publicity lately for inhibiting mosquito control programs, but an official with the county Agricultural Commissioner said it will apply to weed eradication programs as well.

"If you plan to discharge a pesticide into water, you have to get a pollution discharge permit," said Ray Smith, chief of pest management with the county Agricultural Commissioner and chair of the county's new Weed Management Area. "Basically, it applies to intentional discharge into water....If the stream is not flowing it may not apply."

He said he wasn't sure how Arundo removal projects like the Conservancy's, which involves cutting stems at 10 to 18 inches and painting them with herbicide, would fit into the new regulations.


Smith said Arundo is expected to be officially listed by the state as a noxious weed, but controversy over another candidate popular with nurseries--Pampas grass--is holding up approval of an updated list.

"Everybody agrees it should be on that list," said Smith. "Arundo is Los Angeles County's worst weed."

The worst weed in the state, said Smith, is Yellow Star Thistle, which currently occupies 20 million acres in California and is expected to eventually reach 40 million acres. In this case, said Smith, the problem is not only crowding out of native plants, but ruined recreation or grazing areas. Nothing will eat it, he said, and it's poisonous to horses. It does occur in the Santa Monicas, but is not common in Topanga.

Los Angeles County's second worst plant pest is probably Cape Ivy, said Smith.

According to Smith, the WMA, which has met five times since forming earlier this year, has no policy regarding pesticide use. But, with a first year budget of only $15,000, it is not embarking on any major projects. Instead, said Smith, it will assist other entities seeking grant monies.

"People can use whatever they want that's legal," said Smith. "If you want, you can send goats in."

However, he said, he believes herbicides are "an extremely valuable tool."

Some new products, he said, are so specific that they target unique biological features of a certain plant and leave other species unaffected.

"It's like someone cussing you out in a foreign language," said Smith. "Who knows what they're saying? Who cares?"

While proponents of herbicide use say it is impossible to eradicate Arundo without them, the California Department of Food and Agriculture does list at least one example in Mendocino County where the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers sponsored mechanical and hand crew removal of Arundo, and it is reportedly working. The RCD also provided a report on a battle against Cape Ivy that was ultimately successful using only hand crews, even though initial results were very discouraging.

Blake believes it is possible too. Despite her many compliments from guests over the years who love her Arundo and its jungle paradise appeal, Blake announced at the Invasives meeting that she is doing her part.

"I have started cutting it, and I am determined,..." she said. "I want to do it at my own pace. I don't want to be ordered to do it."

She intends to replace it with Willow stakes to see if they do take root as has been suggested, while retaining some Arundo for privacy screening and erosion control.

The Conservancy is scheduled to report on the status of its grant at the Thursday, September 20 Watershed Committee meeting. On Thursday, November 8 at 7 p.m. SCAT is sponsoring a talk at Topanga Elementary School by Susan Kegley, Ph.D., a staff scientist with Californians for Pesticide Reform.


Done Deal: Escrow Closes on Lower Topanga

By Susan Chasen

The California Department of Parks and Recreation announced on August 30 its purchase of the 1,659-acre Lower Topanga property slated to become a major addition to Topanga State Park.

It's been over a year-and-a-half since landowner LAACO Ltd. announced the property had been optioned for a parkland purchase. Now virtually the entire Lower Topanga watershed--from ridgeline to ridgeline, from the coast to the boundary of the existing State Park three miles up at Fernwood--is now in public ownership.

"This guarantees preservation for generations to come," said Roy Stearns, director of communications for State Parks. "We are delighted.

"For the 11 million people in the Los Angeles basin, it's a quality, quality addition to Topanga State Park--and to the whole state park system--that stretches all the way to the beach....In future years, everybody will be very glad it's parkland."

With completion of the $43 million purchase, existing residential and business tenants now have a new landlord. State Parks officials have said they will consider retaining some businesses, but residents still anticipate pressure to be out by next summer.

Some residents are already taking advantage of relocation monies and are preparing to move. But others who do not have ready options hope to stay for at least a few more years and to see the legacy of their community preserved.

State Parks will now begin preparing an Interim Public Use and Management Plan to protect the resources on the property and make it safe for public use in the near future.

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has applied for a $2.9 million grant to build a 3,000-square-foot visitor center and 40-car parking lot fronting onto Pacific Coast Highway, according to Paul Edelman, Conservancy chief of natural resources and planning.

Interim planning begins this month with review of natural, architectural and historical features of the property, according to Clay Phillips, State Parks Southern Service Center Chief. He said the Lower Topanga community will be tapped for their knowledge of the site.

"There will be an opportunity for public input," said Phillips. "We recognize that the local people are very interested in this project."

A draft plan is to be completed by the end of December. Then three months are scheduled--January through March--for environmental review if it's required.

Phillips said an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) will probably not be required because projects included in an interim plan are generally reversible, with the possible exception of trail construction. Other installations might include unpaved parking, chemical toilets and picnic tables, he said.

Tenants of Lower Topanga would like to see an environmental review that compares potentially heavy public use with the status quo.

In the 1970s, when the Topanga beach houses were to be removed, a judged ruled that an EIR was required in part because of the human impacts, and relocation was delayed for several years.

According to Phillips, the Interim Plan might last "a few years" until a General Management Plan, which can take two or three years, is completed.

Tenants have argued they shouldn't have to go until a plan establishes that it is necessary. They challenge State Parks' role in eliminating scarce affordable housing which other government agencies are mandated to protect.

A relocation plan for the 49 residential and 14 business tenants is expected by the end of October.

Remaining tenants don't think they will have realistic comparable housing options. They may challenge it in court.

So far, at least one resident has moved and two or three others are planning to move soon.


Charles Farley Hospitalized

Charles Farley, the 67-year-old recluse who was evicted from his home under a Topanga bridge (see "The Saga of Charles Farley," Messenger V. 24 N. 10, May 18-31, 2000) is currently in the Intensive Care Unit of Santa Monica-UCLA Hospital. A hospital spokesperson said that Charles will remain in ICU until his condition improves. If you have any information on how to contact his family members, please call the hospital directly at (310) 319-4680.


Heavy Hitters Take Aim at Ahmanson Ranch Project


Participants in the meeting included (from left to right), State Senator Sheila Kuehl, Assemblymember Fran Pavley, and Congressman Brad Sherman.

By Tony Morris

Over 500 residents turned out for an August 25 hearing and rally on the proposed 3,050-home Ahmanson Ranch project. Assemblymember Fran Pavley, who chairs the Select Committee on Air and Water Quality of the State Legislature, organized the hearing at El Camino High School in Woodland Hills.

The meeting was packed with prominent Los Angeles-area elected officials concerned about impacts from the massive project just over the county line in Ventura. Among these were Congressman Brad Sherman, State Senator Sheila Kuehl, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, Los Angeles City Councilmember Dennis Zine and Mayor of the City of Calabasas Janice Lee.

Ahmanson attorney Steve Weston spoke for the project.

Ahmanson's attorney Steve Weston presented an overview of the project and assured those attending that the protection of the rare San Fernando Valley spineflower and the red-legged frog will be accomplished. Weston also said the project had received awards for its design and that, even with two 18-hole golf courses and major commercial development, no increased run-off would threaten the headwaters of Malibu creek. The owner of the project, Washington Mutual Bank, will provide $14 million dollars in regional traffic mitigation. Over 500 construction jobs will be created over the 12-year life of the project. Weston said the developer will file a Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (EIR) with Ventura County to address endangered species issues not part of the project's original EIR.

Congressman Brad Sherman, commenting on plans for the protection of endangered species discovered at the Ahmanson, quipped, "The plan is to scrape up the flowers and drop them on the frogs." Noting the shortage in affordable housing and apartments in the area, Sherman said he looked forward to seeing "where on the golf course the affordable housing is located."

And outside, citizens spoke their minds.

Senator Sheila Kuehl said she too is concerned about the project and plans to watch project developments closely. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky noted that although Ahmanson Ranch is located in Ventura County, Los Angeles County was asked to provide fire protection during construction due to problems of access at the site. As for traffic problems in the future, Yaroslavsky said Ventura County will "get all of the taxes and none of the traffic." Los Angeles Councilmember Dennis Zine stated his opposition to the project "due to quality of life and the negative impact it is going to cause. It's too much for us to live with. We are becoming the endangered species." Zine pledged to continue the fight against the project in the Valley. Mayor Janice Lee of Calabasas said the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) allows cities like Calabasas to address the Act's compliance in another jurisdiction. "We are standing directly in the downstream impact."

Kathleen Stone, an attorney and advisor to the legislature on CEQA, said that a Supplemental EIR must be compared with the original EIR, as the CEQA legislation does not provide for local jurisdictions to approve Supplemental EIR's. Any development agreement must be amended to comply with state law. J. Stacey Sullivan, Chief Consultant to the Assembly Local Government Committee, replied that the basis for a decision as to CEQA compliance will be based on scientific data. "A development agreement cannot trump existing law." Congressman Sherman asked if the County of Ventura could impose additional mitigation or downsizing of the Ahmanson project following a review of the Supplemental EIR.

Topanga resident Chester King, an archeologist familiar with the Chumash, spoke of sacred caves on the northeast portion of the site that are the most important in the Los Angeles basin. The caves date back 5,000 to 8,000 years.

Sean Manion, Conservation Biologist with the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains (RCDSMM) noted that the red-legged frog is gone from 99 percent of its inland habitat and from 75 percent of its overall range. Non-native predators such as the crayfish and mosquito fish, as well as cats, rats, and dogs, are responsible for major losses of endangered species.

Topanga archaeologist Chester King spoke against it.

Testifying on behalf of Heal the Bay, Executive Director Mark Gold charged that Ahmanson Ranch has no adequate wastewater plan. Millions of gallons of sewage generated by the project cannot be handled by the Tapia sewage treatment facility, which currently cannot discharge for six months each year. Gold asked where all the water will go if one linear mile of Malibu creek watershed is filled in by major grading on the site.

Topanga's Rosi Dagit, Senior Conservation Biologist for the RCDSMM said that the total impact of the project's five phases must be examined in terms of site runoff. In Dagit's view, major damage to the Malibu Creek watershed will occur if the project is built.

The project's impact on traffic was addressed by Bob Sassaman, District Director for Caltrans . Sassaman said that the project would add to the overall traffic in the area. The 101 Freeway is already subject to daily stop-and-go traffic for an average of three hours. Should Ventura County supervisors decline to call for a new traffic study based on the Supplemental EIR being submitted by the developers, county and municipal officials in Los Angeles may elect to sue. Opponents of the Ahmanson Ranch project may get the last word as more information is made available.


Station 69--Have Fire Engine, Will Travel


The newest weapon in our fire arsenal, the Firehawk (left), carries a 1,000 gallon load, compared with the 350 gallon capacity of the older helicopters.

By Penny Taylor

There are opening days for deer, pheasant and duck season. I can't find an opening day for fire season, but it's an educated guess that it's here.

Over the past few months in the Canyon we've had a Summit to Summit fire and a Henry Ridge fire. On Thursday, August 23, fire broke out in Calabasas near Old Canyon and Mulholland. Chief Brian Hughes of Battalion 5 and Chief Glenn Mutch of Battalion 6 were at Battalion Command. Los Angeles County Fire Station 69 was called out--along with Stations 67 and 125, Topanga call firefighters, at least two crews from Camp 13, a crew from Camp 14, and a Juvenile Camp crew--to assist Station 68 in the brush fire that was most likely caused by kids shooting off fireworks.

Lieutenant Abner of the Lost Hills Sheriff's Station indicated that neighbors in the area said they'd heard fireworks going off for some time, but couldn't pinpoint the location.

Kris Dworkoski, Director of Admissions at Viewpoint Elementary School, also heard the fireworks. At some point she looked across the street and saw the fire only 30 yards away from the entrance to Founder's Hall.

Ms. Dworkoski is also the Emergency Preparedness Coordinator at the school, and said of the evacuation, "We have a very extensive emergency preparedness program and everybody did what they needed to do. We swept the building to know that everyone was accounted for….It's nice to know that people do what they need to do."

Football practice was going on and the field was cleared. Those that could drive took off, and other students were picked up by parents. Like Topanga schools, Viewpoint faces the reality of being in a brushy, mountainous area. They were prepared, and have already had to evacuate the school twice before--once during the fire of November 2, 1993.

The Calabasas fire was called in at 2:30 p.m. Captain Kelly of Station 68 indicated that the flames were as high as 30 feet when the engine first arrived. The fire originated within 30 feet of a propane tank, and only yards from the elementary school and a large stucco home on the same hillside.

The Firehawk maneuvers through fire, smoke and power lines to drop its load.

The fire was knocked down by 5:28 p.m. Helicopters were the main source of knockdown and this was the first time the new Firehawk was put into action. Some people have questioned potential mechanical problems involving the practicality of adapting a military helicopter to this kind of use, specifically the additional payload of water and maneuverability. I've also been told that the Firehawk can't come in as low as the other choppers because the heavy propeller wash would fan the flames of the fire.

From where I stood it performed fabulously. The pilot was nailing the hillside and it was evident that the advantage of being able to make three separate drops on a single run aided in covering multiple hot spots that flared up outside the fire line. As far as not being able to get in as low, well if that wasn't low I don't want to be standing on the ridgeline when they do go in low.

Engine companies, camp crews and call firefighters were on scene doing mop-up well into the night. The fire consumed between 14 and 15 acres.

Only two days later a brush fire was called in at 2:31 p.m. in Bell Canyon. If you stood on the ridgeline of the first fire you could look directly across the canyon and see the Bell Canyon fire. The header could be seen without leaving Topanga. This fire was started by children playing with matches and consumed 76 acres.

Call firefighter Ken Widen fighting the blaze--and winning.

Patrol 69 was dispatched to the scene. Firefighter Rob Carson and call firefighter Ken Widen were assigned to lookout positions. Engine 69 was dispatched minutes later for structure protection. Los Angeles City assigned 20 engine companies, three ambulances, and four helicopters. Teams Two and Four from Camp 13 were also called in as well as helicopters from Los Angeles County. Once again the Firehawk was put to use. Ventura County Units were also on the fire along with Los Angeles County engine crews. The fire was knocked down at 5:30 p.m. and mop up operations continued into the evening.

It's now Monday, August 27 and I can't get updated information from the Public Information Office of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Fire Inspector, Ed Martinez isn't being rude by not returning my calls, he's just busy. There's a fire of 150 acres burning out of control at Castaic, there's a brush fire up on the 118 Freeway and another brush fire call just went out for a fire at Kanan Road at the 101. I've lost track of the engine companies and their assignments, the helicopters and the camp crews going out. The Los Angeles County Fire Department has its hands full with fires, and they're still covering traffic accidents and other emergencies. Where Engine 69 will end up today is anybody's guess.


By the morning of August 28 the Castaic fire had consumed 1,500 acres and firefighters were still on scene.

Up north in Mendocino County the worst had happened. On August 27 at 6:55 p.m., two California Department of Forestry pilots--Larry Groff of Santa Rosa, and Lars Stratte from Chico--were killed in a midair collision while fighting the Bus Fire. Both were piloting Grumman S-2's--a plane capable of dispersing 500 gallons of fire retardant.

At the Bell Canyon fire two days before, a resident watched as two helicopters appeared from nowhere out of the dense smoke. She turned and asked in wonder, "How do they do that?" At the time there were four Los Angeles City helicopters, two Los Angeles County helicopters and a Ventura County helicopter traversing the 76-acre fire.

The deaths of the two pilots is a sad reminder of the dangers these people face daily, fighting fires in tight, crowded air space with little visibility.


Local Crossings Break Backbone Trail


Heavy traffic and poor line of sight make Topanga trail crossings very dangerous.

By Susan Chasen

While Topanga's increasingly heavy and fast-moving traffic is pushing the community to accept another traffic light (see following story) it is also generating concerns for Backbone Trail proponents who see crossing Topanga streets as a serious hazard for hikers and equestrians using the trail.

Completion of the trail is expected within two to three years. But trail advocates say the historic debut of this 67-mile trail coursing through the entire length of the Santa Monica Mountains and into its most remote reaches cannot be celebrated until there are safe crossings through Topanga.

"They can't say it's open until it's open," says veteran trail blazer Ron Webster of the Topanga crossings problem. "You look and you run....That's not a Backbone Trail crossing."

At a special meeting of the Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council held on August 13 to address this problem, Webster issued something of a call-to-arms to focus attention on the crossings as well as the broader problem of trail maintenance funding and future staffing specifically for the Backbone Trail.

Members of the Trails Council board are going to try to coordinate efforts with Caltrans and County Public Works officials along with park agency and elected officials to get the project on track, beginning with a site visit and meeting at Trippet Ranch this month.


The Backbone Trail extends from Will Rogers State Park to Point Mugu. In Topanga it comes down from Trippet Ranch via the Dead Horse Trail and crosses Topanga Canyon Boulevard at Greenleaf Canyon. Then it runs along behind Topanga Elementary School, crosses Old Topanga Canyon Road about a half mile from the intersection and continues on to Topanga Meadows, Hondo Canyon, up to Stunt Road and beyond.

While there are other road crossings on the Backbone Trail, the heavy traffic and inadequate line of sight for safe crossings in Topanga make them by far the most dangerous, according to Webster. He believes they will require more than ordinary crosswalks to meet safety guidelines for both hikers and equestrians.

The Topanga Canyon Boulevard crossing may require a bridge or at least a crossing light, suggested Webster. On Old Canyon, there is a possibility of establishing a crossing under a existing bridge across the creek, but concerns about water levels during rains, and riparian impacts, may make this option unacceptable, he said.

In any case, Webster acknowledged that the community is likely to have strong feelings about the best solutions and he is anxious to get the process started.

"If you don't start on this problem now, there's no way you're going to get a solution in two years," Webster said. "I think that we should take action now to have a meeting concerning the Topanga crossings....We need to assess the problem and move forward on it."

According to Trails Council President Ruth Gerson, Caltrans participated in discussions about the Topanga Canyon Boulevard crossing about six years ago, but nothing ever happened.

"I don't know how we're going to cross Topanga, but it needs to be a safe crossing," said Gerson. She repeatedly urged a target of two years for completion of the important trail.

"We see it as people being able to take a long hike or horseback ride or, by accessing it from feeder trails, getting further away than they can on the local trails," said Gerson.

Herb Petermann, president of Viewridge Owners Involved in the Community and Environment (VOICE), and a Trails Council member, attended the meeting at Diamond X Ranch and agreed that something should be done.

"I don't want to have it on my conscience if someone gets killed trying to cross," said Petermann. "Down there you don't have a line of sight."

Even crossing from Viewridge to Summit Valley Park, where there is a good line of sight each way, Petermann said is very difficult because the traffic is so heavy at certain times.

According to Petermann, a flashing light triggered by high and low controls for hikers and equestrians may be the solution.

To build momentum for the project, the Trails Council intends to involve Topanga organizations--TASC (Topanga Association for a Scenic Community) and VOICE--as well as the Sierra Club Santa Monica Mountains Task Force, the Mountains Restoration Trust and the Temescal Canyon Association in the cause.


Now, after more than 20 years piecing together this trail, the remarkable achievement is in sight with only a few trail linkages to go, and Webster says it's time to force the issue of chronic non-funding and under-funding of trail maintenance by state and national park agencies.

"If you are an equestrian, less of the trail is finished now than there was five years ago," said Webster. This is because key stretches of trail, such as Hondo Canyon in Topanga, have not had adequate maintenance, he said.

At the Trails Council meeting, representatives of State Parks and National Parks acknowledged that trail work relies heavily on volunteer help and must compete for funding with other priorities.

Without accusing anyone of bad intentions, Webster contends that volunteers, including those working every weekend with the Trails Council and the Sierra Club, "have been somewhat used."

"We have a workload well beyond what the volunteers can possibly do," said Webster. "We want the trail program funded."

In particular, both Gerson and Webster challenged park policies that favor maintenance of most heavily used "Class 1" trails over remote sections of the Backbone Trail which are generally designated "Class 4." If the trail is to fulfill its original vision, Webster said it will need its own staffing and maintenance or continue to lose out to the popular close-in trails.

Frank Padilla, Jr., Superintendent for State Parks Trails Program in the Angeles District, said he has been making progress by designating trails as "facilities" for the first time so that they can be understood as having ongoing maintenance requirements.

"There has never been a budget for trail maintenance in the Santa Monica Mountains," said Padilla. "Even with the volunteers, the work is overwhelming."

According to Padilla, State Parks is responsible for 98 miles of non-motorway trails in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Similarly, Woody Smeck, Deputy Superintendent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA), said volunteers do a quarter to a third of the National Park Service's trail work in the Santa Monica Mountains. Volunteers contribute 53,000 hours of work, most of it on the Park Services 200 miles of trails, he said.

"Our biggest problem is recurring operations money for trail maintenance," said Smeck.

He said the National Recreation Area budget included $186,000 this year for four employment positions and trail and road maintenance throughout the National Parks Service's 22,000 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains along with $15,000 in discretionary funds for tools and equipment. Also, grants are sometimes received to cover special projects and seasonal positions. This year, SMMNRA received $200,000, he said.


According to Smeck, the National Parks Service is in the second half of a six-year, $6 million appropriation from Congress to acquire four of the last six small parcels of the Backbone Trail. They fall between Encinal Canyon Road and Yerba Buena Road and comprise about two miles of trail. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy is expected to acquire the other two parcels. These purchases, along with four miles of trail construction, are all that's left to complete the trail.

Smeck said he believes two years is a realistic time frame both to complete the trail and solve the Topanga crossings problem.

"Hopefully, we'll have that in place before we're ready to cut a ribbon for the trail," said Smeck. "I'm hoping Caltrans will be responsive."

Padilla promised that repairs to Hondo Canyon will be made soon--probably by November. As for the general funding problem, he said he is requesting a budget of $450,000, but doesn't expect to receive close to that amount.

Milt McAuley, whose many books on the trails and natural features of the Santa Monica Mountains have opened a new world to many, said he recalled speaking about the Backbone Trail at a meeting in the same room 10 or 15 years ago.

At the time he said, "I expect to see the completion of the Backbone Trail in my lifetime" and was told, "Don't hold your breath."

So now, at 82, McAuley said, "I want to thank you people for extending my life..."

McAuley's book, "Guide to the Backbone Trail," published in 1990, is dedicated to Ron Webster for his visionary trail building work. His predictions for the trail, which he described then as "part idea and part reality," are now close to being fully realized.

His concern about the trail, which he has walked end to end many times, is that there are not enough campgrounds at reasonable intervals along the way. When he leads groups, he says the biggest difficulty is arranging transportation to campgrounds and back again.

Once it's complete, however, McAuley has high hopes for its success. "This will be the trail people talk about."

Smeck agrees.

"I think it's one of the crowning achievements for the Recreation Area," said Smeck. "It really is a sensational feature to have here, and it will be quite an amenity for the public when it is put into place."

Eventually, he predicted, it will be nominated to become a National Scenic Trail.


Topanga Yields on New Traffic Light

These 1950s-style traffic lights are being considered for installation on Topanga Canyon Boulevard.

By Tony Morris

The Topanga Canyon Boulevard Committee held a town meeting at the Topanga Community House on August 15 to discuss a slate of traffic proposals outlined in a community-wide mailing from the Topanga Town Council. While turn out to the meeting was small, several who attended had questions and ideas regarding Topanga's traffic safety problems and the proposed new light and crosswalk on Topanga Canyon Boulevard at the south driveways of Pine Tree Circle and the Center.

Formed in January 2001 under the leadership of Laurie Newman and Susan Nissman from the offices of State Senator Sheila Kuehl and Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky respectively, the TCB Traffic Committee is comprised of representatives from the Topanga business and residential communities, Caltrans, California Highway Patrol, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. Committee co-chairperson Susan Nissman opened the meeting by announcing that over 50 written comments had been received from the community: "The majority have been positive with recommendations and ideas." Nissman said the first phase of the Committee's study of traffic conditions, involving the Topanga business community from School Road to Fernwood Market, is complete. The second phase will study the Boulevard from School Road to the Top O' Topanga, and the third phase from Fernwood Market to Pacific Coast Highway. Nissman acknowledged the work of Arlette Parker and the "Slow Down Thru Town" campaign in raising awareness in the community.

California Highway Patrol Officer Tim Snyder told those present that the majority of drivers stopped by the CHP in the Canyon are local residents, and that two out of ten are stopped for not wearing seatbelts. Susan Nissman suggested a supplemental education campaign would be useful in Topanga and traffic safety seminars could be organized.

"Please Slow Down Thru Town" signs to be installed at either end of the business district were discussed. Installation of the signs will be provided by Caltrans, but a balance of $3,420 must be raised to cover the cost of fabricating them. Susan Nissman reminded those present that "there is not even an awareness by some commuters that this is a town. We must ‘impact' drivers with the fact that this is a town, not just a thoroughfare."

Several residents asked about the number of accidents in the center of town and whether speed was a major factor. CHP Officer Kevin Pack replied in the majority of accidents it was not, and that the CHP enforces the speed limit. Longtime Topanga resident David Totheroh suggested that speeding citations should be written based on the unsafe conditions provision of the law: "The reality is that we allow people to drive at speeds that, given the conditions of the road, are not safe." Officer Pack stated that the posted speed in the Canyon is considered safe, but Totheroh replied that conditions such as weather, limited sightlines and traffic congestion should be factored in when determining what speed is actually safe. After the meeting he further stated, "We're always challenged to think outside of the box. In this situation not only are all the solutions in the box, but the box is being allowed to dictate the shape of its contents."

Tailgating was also mentioned as a daily problem for Topangans. Officer Pack said that in order to ticket drivers who are tailgating, CHP units have to observe the offending drivers.

Residents further complained about drivers who abuse the handicapped parking space at the Post Office. CHP Officer Snyder advised those who observe unauthorized drivers parking in the handicapped space to note the offender's license plate and the time of day, and to notify the West Valley CHP Office by phone or mail.

Fernwood Market's Cindy Jung said that pine trees obstructing driver's line of site on the Boulevard south of the market need to be trimmed. The property owner has agreed to discuss trimming and Jung asked for the Committee's assistance in having the work completed.

Following a discussion of the need for an new traffic light and pedestrian crosswalk on Topanga Canyon Boulevard at the Topanga Center and Pine Tree Circle, Senior Transportation Engineer Sheik Moinuddin explained how the light would function. Vehicles exiting Topanga Center or Pine Tree Circle would trigger a loop detector, and pedestrians would trigger the light by pushing a button.

A number of residents present stated that they moved to Topanga because of its rural character and now "it's becoming more like Calabasas." Someone asked that, if it is necessary to get another traffic light in town, would it at least be possible to get a rustic-looking one? Topanga Town Council's Dale Robinette showed an illustration of a 1950s traffic signal, unlike the intrusive signal at School Road. Laurie Newman said the Committee was "looking into rustic designs." Susan Nissman also remarked that a traffic light was the "last item to be included [in the Committee's recommendations], but it was needed because of the number of accidents." Nissman said the signal at School Road provides traffic gaps for those exiting Old Topanga Canyon Road, and a new signal would also provide gaps for drivers at Fernwood Pacific.

One resident asked if a new traffic light will actually prevent accidents. Nissman remarked, "The additional signal will slow commuters down."

As for a timetable for work to be completed, Caltrans' Moinuddin said that striping and signage should be completed within the next five months, while any work on a new traffic light would require at least a year.


Have You Bathed Your Cacti Today?


By Patrick Finley

Have you noticed that ugly bluish-white stuff that's been suffocating some of the prickly pear cacti in the Canyon? It's caused by a type of wasp. The wasps lay eggs which hatch into larvae. The bluish-white stuff is sticky and has about the same consistency as a melted marshmallow. It is produced by the wasp larvae as protection from predators and the environment in general. An infestation of these larvae can pose a serious health threat to even the largest and most robust of cacti.

What, you may ask, can one do about it? Get out the garden hose and thoroughly wash the cactus from the top down. The larvae are far too frail to survive this kind of ordeal. A long-handled brush like the ones used to wash cars would be helpful if your cactus is particularly tall. Using a small, high pressure stream of water is effective and will cut down considerably on the amount of water you use. A large cactus can take from two to four hours to wash.

Right now is an ideal time of year to mount a counterattack against this recent plague. With the hot weather upon us, it's relaxing and quite enjoyable to get out in the yard and play with the garden hose for a couple of hours. If this is too much of a chore for you personally, have your gardener do it (if you have one). Or, if the cactus borders a neighbor's yard, see if they would be willing to share the chore. That way you can help keep our opuntia cacti healthy and promote community spirit at the same time.


Go East, Young Man

Longtime Topanga resident Franceska Schifrin, with son Jasper (left) and daughter Maya, is packing up the family to move East so husband Tim Pershing can pursue his Ph.D. in Political Science at Brandeis University.

Peter Schnitzler (left), with Franceska and Alexa Sekyre (right), admires "Canyon Kitchen Mural," painted by Franceksa's late father Arnold Schifrin. The three panels were originally in the Old Post Office Restaurant. Alexa and Peter are hoping to restore the painting and eventually find a permanent home for the piece.


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