March 30, 1998 - From the March, 1998 issue

Mtn. Conservancy’s Edmiston Bemoans So Cal’s Political Anemia

TPR is pleased to present the following interview with Joe Edmiston, the near-20-year Executive Director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. Edmiston comments on the challenges of leading a State agency through the acquisition, preservation, and restoration of natural lands in the Santa Monica Mountains in a political climate of uneasy commitment to the cause.

“There isn’t a legislator from Southern California who has played a decisive role in the park bond measure.”

Why isn't there a park bond issue on the June ballot?

Politics. The park bond question trails behind the education bond controversy. And because the legislators could not agree on an education bond, we do not have a park bond. That's where it stands politically. 

Existentially, we're really at a cusp as to whether we're going to finally decide that park and recreation open space resources are going to be allocated where the need is—and that's in Southern California. I've been fed up with the fact that Northern California legislators, as true to their constituency as they are, seem to think that the only resources worth saving are north of the Tehachapi Mountains.

If you're talking about redwood forests, you're right; if you're going to save the Headwaters forest, you must do it where the redwoods are. Otherwise, in the beginning of the 21st century, we've got to start putting our park and recreation resources where the people are. And that’s not being done.

Who must carry the brief for Southern California in the legislature if the region’s needs are to be best served?

There isn't a legislator from Southern California who has played a decisive role in the park bond measure. The closest is Tom Hayden, Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, but these bills have now passed far beyond the Resources Committee. And no Southern California legislator has stepped up and said, ‘I’m going to make this a key issue in my career.’ Northern California legislators have. But until we have a Southern California champion legislator, we're not going to get the attention we need. 

Two fine legislators are doing an excellent job for Northern California: Mike Thompson and Fred Keeley. They have staked out a formidable position in the Legislature, and if you're going to talk about park bonds and natural resource funding, you’ve got to talk to them. We need to have that kind of a champion from Southern California.

I'm looking increasingly at the Speaker, Antonio Villaraigosa, as our hope on this. We have waited a long time to have a Speaker like Antonio, someone who would held his son up in his arms at one of our events—which he did last October at Elyria Canyon—and extolled the virtues of parks close to the city. He waxed very eloquent about the nature of having nature close to the urban population.

Antonio may, in fact, become that champion we need. But the problem is, you can only "speaker-ize" so many issues. Whether he's willing to "speaker-ize" parks and recreation remains to be seen.

Let's step back from the current issues of the day and discuss a 1993 quote of yours from an interview about what the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy’s vision is and how best to evaluate organizational success. You said: "Despite the urbanization of Los Angeles,  L.A. has a wilderness fringe which is un-appreciated. Our explicit notion is to protect those wild areas. I think we will be defined as successful in two generations from now, people can still walk into the mountains and be afraid that they may come across a cougar." I wonder if you'd give your organization an evaluation today against that standard.

We're closer to protecting the cougar than we've ever been before. A key event was in 1995 when the Wildlife Corridor Conservation Authority was established. It's a joint powers authority between cities in Southeast Los Angeles County, Brea in Orange County, and the Conservancy. We're working to protect the areas of the Whittier, Puente Hills, Chino Hills down to the Santa Ana mountains, a very significant habitat area that—thank God—was left alone by the housing developers because the oil developers got there first.

Now, as oil is receding as a factor in the Whittier-Puente Hills area, we have been very successful working with other entities to acquire former oil properties from Chevron, Unocal and around a number of other companies. We’ve negotiating now on Tonner Canyon, and, ultimately, I think we will be able to protect the entire corridor.

So, in that sense, we’re closer. But success will ultimately depend on whether there is a substantial infusion of money to Southern California in the next year. Our land acquisition costs were so favorable between 1990 and late 1996 when the market was essentially flat. But for the past year, the market has been upward trending. And it looks like it is ready to take off in some areas. If the market takes off and we don't have the funding to keep up with it, we could lose significant parcels during this next business cycle.

Let's talk about Soka. In 1993 you were quoted as saying: "We 're going up against Japan, Inc. and it has more power than the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy." Update us on the resolution or that contentious legal battle? 

The situation is essentially the same. I would only modify my response from five years ago in that it's not so much "Japan, Inc." I realize the strength of Soka, itself, without any other incorporators. 

The real lesson is that against a determined opponent, a moderate-sized agency's power of eminent domain just doesn't work. They can outspend us lawyer-for-lawyer and dollar-for-dollar.

In the end, however, the compromise we won was the best obtainable. It's a controversial compromise, but if they had offered us that deal for 650 students and over 400 acres of open space in 1993, we never would have initiated the condemnation in the first place.

Measure A, the 1996 L.A. County parks bond measure allocated over $28 million to the mountains conservancy along with an additional $12 million for the conservancy's mountain restoration and conservation authority to acquire and improve land around the County’s river waterways. Could you give us an update on what’s happened with those resources?

Most of the $27.75 million for the Santa Monica Mountains has been spent. We're still negotiating some of those deals, but we've already saved some important “viewshed” areas in Malibu Canyon.


We’re also going to finish off the acquisitions in the City of Los Angeles, which is very exciting. It looks like we will get the Eastport and Boeckman properties, so when you look west from the 405 Freeway, virtually all the undeveloped property in the City of Los Angeles—maybe about 8,000 acres–will be protected one way or another. That’s a major accomplishment.

Also, with the Ahmanson acquisition, including the Hope property and the lands in between, we will be able to establish a continuous wildlife corridor north to south from the Santa Susana Mountains, all the way down 40 miles to the Pacific Ocean. That, too, will a major accomplishment. 

And it looks as though we're going to be able to finish the backbone trail. 

Now, the $12 million for the Los Angeles River is still in the planning process. There are probably $100 million worth of projects waiting to be done. Our goal is to balance those projects geographically so that the Board of Supervisors approves them, yet we don't just fritter the money away with $100,000 here and $200,000 there. We really want to make a significant statement about the River.

We’re trying to make that statement now in the Elysian Valley. If we can green both sides of the River there—where there certainly is a heavily impacted urban population—people will start to rethink the L.A. River and see it as a green resource instead of a concrete ditch. Once that re-envisioning occurs in the public, there will be a lot more support from government and the resources will flow for returning at least some stretches of the River to a more natural condition.

Let’s turn our attention to the North County and to Newhall. What is your take on the County Planning Commission’s adoption of Newhall’s plans for a new town in North County?

It’s the largest project ever to be considered by the County—25,000 units—and there is no requirement for public ownership of the open space. That’s a deficiency that must be remedied by the Board of Supervisors.

Docs the Conservancy have a position on inner-city issues like the L.A. River Taylor Yards development?

We haven't taken a formal position on Taylor Yard. But personally, a lot more options need to be explored before we put big boxes on the last 150 acres, we're likely to have close to Downtown. This is land that could be developed with a mixed-use project that takes advantage of the River location, possibly incorporating some natural flood control features.

It seems like more and more inter-governmental cooperation is becoming the norm for tackling large scale issue like managing major park lands. How well is the three-legged coalition behind the General Management Plan working and are the three agencies always on the same page?

Obviously, where you have three different personalities managing what are disparate resources, it's amazing that we do stay on the same page. One good tool we've used is this General Management Plan process, which the National Parks Service initiated and then brought the State Park Service and the Conservancy into as full partners.

We've been back to the Denver service center twice for a total of ten days to do nothing but sit in closed rooms with maps all around and coordinate our strategy. This has worked, due to the diligence of the Park Service and their superior technical facilities at the Denver Service Center. 

It's working a lot better than anybody anticipated. 

Lastly, please link your efforts, and Park land efforts in general, with the increasing space needs of urban communities in the Southland for wilderness and recreational land. What's the nexus and how are you approaching meeting the challenge?

To mix my metaphors, we are on the verge of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for acquisition of the natural lands surrounding Southern California. That job has not been completed, but we can see where the obvious acquisitions need to be. It's a question now of finding the resources.

We haven't come to grips yet, though, with the fact that the demand for amenity values is extremely high in the urban core areas. And we must address those areas. That's where I see the Conservancy's attention focusing. You can't save the fringe wild lands around Southern California and say you have done the job for the people, because in many cases the accessibility to those areas is as great as is for, say, a river parkway or the Baldwin Hills.

But that’s where our obligation is—to bring the parks to the people. And that’s where the funding needs to be. 


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