May 3, 2021 - From the April, 2021 issue

SMMC’s Joe Edmiston on Public Investment in Land Conservation

With limitations on indoor gathering and activities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, visitors to the parks and open spaces managed by the Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority in Los Angeles County increased 400 percent in 2020. TPR interviews Joe Edmiston, longtime Executive Director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and its sister agency, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, to give a timely update on park conservation efforts—including wildfire prevention, LA River revitalization, wildlife connectivity, and open space preservation. 


“I'm frankly concerned that we're thinking about the river as a place to put our sewage—or rather, our reclaimed water—which is the engineering viewpoint that I hope will change.”—Joe Edmiston

Joe, it has been a year since our last TPR interview, done just as the COVID pandemic was shutting down not only the operations of the Mountains Conservancy, but operations worldwide. As vaccinations of the public proceed, has visitor-ship of the metropolis’ parks also increased?

Very definitely. I asked our people to do an informal survey on the year mark of our closing down, which was mid-March of last year, and our visitorship has increased approximately 400 percent. You can just see the epiphenomenon of that with the LA Times, putting out a 22-page

"The 50 Best Hikes in LA and Southern California" supplement.  That wouldn't happen before. It was always about the newest restaurant, the newest fad, or the newest place that you can go out and walk in the outdoors—given the fact that the outdoors is probably the safest place you can be. We require masking, but it's a pretty darn safe environment, and I think everyone is recognizing that.

Moving from park usage and open space to the immediate environmental challenges of climate change, you raised the alarm in that same interview what another fire season like 2018 might portend for Southern California. Are you still alarmed about the fire threat this coming summer?

It's been two years now since the Woolsey fire, and experience tells us that the further away you are from a conflagration, the less it is remembered. Immediately after a conflagration, there's nothing left to burn, so everybody says there's some leeway and that we'll do it right next time.

Fortunately, the Governor on Tuesday signed a precedent setting fire appropriation of $36 million that (we hope) is a first step in remedying the funding imbalance north vs. south. But prior to that 90 percent of the fire prevention money in California went to areas north of the Tehachapis. If you take a look at the counties south of the Tehachapis—Santa Barbara, Ventura, LA, Orange, and San Bernardino—we're talking here about 10 percent or less of the state's allocation of firemen. That is reflected in the fact that we continually know where the next fire is going to be and we're unwilling to do the two things that have to be addressed.

The first is to get tough on fire remediation, but we don't have control burn ability here. Nobody wants to start a fire in the Santa Monica Mountains because it's unlikely to be on the scale necessary to control it. Plus, fires are the worst things for our carbon compliance with the AQMD, so that's not an option.

 The only option is to get up there and get that brush controlled. It's a labor-intensive option, but we can bring young people in, hire them at $15 - $20 an hour, so they get good work experience and they're out in nature. But that's a fairly expensive way of doing it, as opposed to simply setting a torch in a controlled burn situation.

In our last interview a year ago you also addressed the progress being made with regards to wildlife connectivity in Southern California. Share if any progress has been made.

We've made tremendous strides. We're going to break ground within a year, and we'll have built within a couple of years, a 100-foot wide overpass over the 101 freeway, which will really solidify the connectivity.  We’ll have mountain lions, badgers, and all kinds of wildlife now able to go from north and south. And we’ve found the public responding just tremendously.

For example, every time there's a video of a mountain lion, it’s very exciting to the public. And we now have these two uncollared mountain lions east of the 405 freeway. We've got the camera footage, and the public response to the wildlife is incredible. We don't have anybody grabbing the shotgun to kill the mountain lion. No, everyone is saying how wonderful it is that we have this coexistence. There's no other place, I think, in the world, where you can have real Nature—namely nature where mountain lions eat deer and nature is red in tooth and claw—right next to a megalopolis and, in many cases, intertwined within that megalopolis. And so, if there's anything that is hopeful, it has been the response of the public that, yes, we want nature. We love our mountain lions, so we’re going to provide a way for them to get from the living room to the kitchen and that hallway is not going to be trying to cross the freeway—which is a terrific hazard—it's going to be going over the freeway.

Let’s pivot to current plans to revitalize the LA River, which SMMC has long supported. Share the civic vision and mission driving this region’s efforts?  As well as whether this public/ private goal is achievable?

The river goes through some of the more attractive communities in the city already in the valley, but it also goes through some of the more impacted communities and some of the most significantly disadvantaged communities. Just about everything you can find in LA, you can find alongside the LA River. The question for us is, is it going to look like a flood control channel?

That perception will change even more substantially if alongside that concrete there is a Green Ribbon and if, in the middle of that concrete, instead of having a pretty rectilinear low-flow channel, we have a meandering stream for a low flow channel.

When people understand the aesthetic and the environmental value of having water running through the heart of the city, then things will change. But until that happens, it won't, and I'm frankly concerned that we're thinking about the river as a place to put our sewage, or rather, our reclaimed water, which is the engineering viewpoint that I hope will change.

You recently joined a VerdeXchange webinar showcasing the latest draft of the LA River Masterplan, which boasts a holistic approach to revitalizing the 51-mile river. You candidly offered comments about the plans aspirational elements but were concerned about what it didn't address—which were the practical problems of raising the funds to get the job done. Elaborate.

First of all, it was nice to hear poetry coming out of Mark Pestrella (Director of Los Angeles County Public Works). It's not as though I didn't think he had it in him. I've always been a real fan of Mark Pestrella ever since he was assigned to Fire Rehab 20 years ago in the Santa Monica Mountains for public works.

Everyone agrees that the Plan’s preamble is going to read well and everyone agrees on certain rather fundamental principles; the question now is how is it going to be funded. That gets down to the impact of the private sector, and if we're going to be asking the private sector to meaningfully contribute to the development

 of the river, the question then is how does the private sector make their money. The problem that we've addressed is that the way the private sector makes money is simply by charging for things; by developing buildings and resources, and then charging for them.

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People pay rent for higher value buildings, higher amenities, and certainly the river will be a tremendous amenity that's being developed right now; these are all things that will increase the amenity value. Are the current residents of Southgate, Cudahy, Bell Gardens, and Bell going to be able to take advantage of the innovative ideas that Frank Gehry has come up with? How do we make sure that there's an equitability factor that is plugged in here? As a society, we have not yet been able to do that. This is the time to think fresh and to think new.

I'd even like to see a much more massive public investment that is limited only by people's ability to think, and right now we're limited by our ability to go into the market and have the market pay for things. We've seen trillion dollar federal appropriations at the snap of a finger. The Fed has figured out that all they have to do is add zeros to a computer program, and they're having a good deal. As long as that run goes, we ought to use it for the kinds of public purposes that we have previously depended on the private sector for.

I'd love to see a government run river that is run for the benefit of the people who live alongside it, who can benefit from it, and not necessarily just the landowners who happen to have purchased land along the river 50 years ago.

Could you sort through for our readers what the issues/ tensions are that divide stakeholders on how a bold LA River Revitalization plan might be funded?

The new leadership in River LA, namely former councilmember Ed Reyes, who’s been in for about a year—frankly, one of the toughest years to assume leadership of a nonprofit organization and especially one that depends on communication with the public. But when Ed really gets his legs under him, you're going to have a little bit different orientation to River LA. Harry Chandler is a great guy, and I don't think there's anything I've said that he would disagree with, but I think the question is to what extent can the private sector mobilize? River LA's conception was pretty dependent on private sector involvement; even as the seed money for River LA came from the old redevelopment agency of the city of Los Angeles.

There is no more redevelopment agency, so then the question that everyone is addressing is public versus the private. We're talking about public-private partnerships, and too many of us in government don't want to spend too much taxpayer money so we try to make it as much private as possible. The privates sit down at the conference table and say, "what are you gonna bring to us? What are you going to bring that's of value to our shareholders?"

We have to be able to answer that, and until we're willing to spend that kind of money we're not going to have a satisfactory answer. The private sector is going to go out and do what it does best: redevelop properties, make them look good, increase the rents, and everybody's happy, like in the Arts District.

That's where the real innovation is coming; it's not coming from the folks who are taking economic advantage. I don't think there are very many rich artists that do innovation. Innovation is going to have to come from a combination of government, artists, and community groups. If it's going to be making a really pretty condo with a little bit of ribbon in front of the condo for joggers, we will have failed in a mission if that's the outcome.

Let's segue now to the expansive agenda of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy's operations is funded. Historically SMMC has benefited from the success of numerous ballot measures, which have generated revenues to be reinvested in the quality of Los Angeles’ open space. What's next for the Mountains Conservancy relating to investing more in a “greener” LA?

Not just a greener LA, but a greener California.

There is a measure, Senate Bill 45 By Senator Portantino and co-authored by Senators Allen and Stern, which is about $5.5 billion to address climate change and the need to invest in forest resources in a way that doesn't encourage them to burn every 15 years.  It talks about equitable access and as we apportion these projects around the state, how do we make sure that the right people are able to benefit from them?

There is a companion measure in the Assembly that's being put together and Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia is leading that effort. I think that will come about, but the question is whether it's going to be large enough and significant enough. I think it'll be on the ballot in 2022, but who knows what the political environment is going to be then and it’s not on a scale of what we need.

We don't use these terms anymore, but effectively, the way the federal government is spending is the moral equivalent of war. It's a war for a more just society, frankly, in terms of how we allocate the funds and the resources, and I look very favorably on the opportunities of working with the federal government and working with the Congress now. I think the current Congress wants to do big things before the politics changes back in Washington. And so, I really am looking forward to the federal government stepping up. We're already seeing expansions of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, that have been proposed and have been enacted. I think we're going to have a South Bay, or at least a Santa Monica Bay National Recreation Area. So the opportunities are more federal involvement, are significant, and I look forward to being a partner with those efforts

Address, as well, the possibility of Congress designating the Santa Monica Bay as a National Recreation Area.

Well, Congressman Lieu has a proposal that's in Congress right now to do a conceptual study leading to the designation of the Santa Monica Bay as a National Recreation Area. When you look at the millions and millions of people that recreate on our beaches and in the areas proximate to Santa Monica Bay, including the Santa Monica mountains, it certainly deserves to have national recognition. And so with that will come resources to appropriately restore the Ballona Wetlands.  There are a lot of things you can do if you focus federal money on a problem, and that's what we look forward to.

Lastly, your political insight would be appreciated. California, in the last two years, has aligned its local elections with national elections; the result often being that issues that dominate national and statewide discourse have increasingly dominated local political campaigns. If the 2022 campaign for the mayor of the second largest city in the United States, Los Angeles, is likewise dominated by such issues, will your priorities—the priorities of the Santa Monica Mountains—be overlooked by voters?

Very definitely. And this gets back to the way we started this conversation the same way, which is that we've had a 400% increase in visitation. Once the folks have decided thatthis is a cool thing to do and We want more of it, and we may be able to return to the cafe's we also want to we want to stay on the trails. There's going to be a demand for how municipal government and the City of LA can accommodate those new demands. The city will have to respond to that. And I'm looking forward to it being an issue. People saying you know I found out about this beautiful area. How can we, but there are too many people here. Well solution. If we have the old little, the little ditty was a solution to pollution is dilution, right. So the solution to overcrowding on a trail is more trails and more open spaces. And I think that simple solution will be something we're going to be advocating, and I don't see a successful mayoral candidate not address that problem.

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.