February 8, 2022 - From the February, 2022 issue

SMMC’s Joe Edmiston ‘Jazzed’ by Newsom Spending & Open Space Priorities

With generous surplus state funding included for climate resilience in Governor Newsom’s 2022-23 budget request, TPR caught up with Santa Monica Mountain’s Conservancy Executive Director, Joe Edmiston, to elaborate on how the influx of federal and state infrastructure investments will impact Southern California conservation and open space projects. And, ahead of what in Southern California is a predictable but seriously dangerous wildfire season, Edmiston opines on the impact that increasing wildfire risks are having on homeowner’s insurance markets and the propensity for continued development in California’s fire-prone urban-wildland interface. Lastly, he addresses the continuing need for LA City’s next Mayor to “protect" the LA River.


Joe Edmiston

“I have been critical of administrations in the past, but the Newsom administration really takes it seriously. They've decided to put a substantial amount, in the billions, in climate change remediation.”

Joe, let’s begin our 2022 interview by having you assess for our readers the risks & challenges posed for the Santa Monica Mountains by another year of wildfires and droughts. Will there be adequate resources to address the aforementioned?

Joe Edmiston: With every wet cycle, there is a predictable new fire cycle. We're trying to get ahead of that. I have to say it, as I have been critical of administrations in the past, but the Newsom administration really takes it seriously. They've decided to put a substantial amount, in the billions, in climate change remediation.

That doesn't mean the same thing in Southern California as in Northern California. In Northern California, they're talking about getting rid of forest floor fuels and that kind of thing. We don't have that. In Southern California, what we have is predictable Chaparral growth and predictable wildfire corridors. I think the governor and the legislature are prepared to put billions into that. Unfortunately, we don't exactly know the parameters yet because the Legislature hasn’t yet weighed in, but this governor is committed, and that commitment is something we have not had at the gubernatorial level before.

Does your response assume that the state is reexamining its historical approach to fire suppression and prevention?

Well, in Northern California, it’s very clear what they're doing. In Southern California, it’s not quite so easy. We have defined fire corridors. You can predict and map them almost with the precision of Google Maps. The question is getting resources there in time. I mean, let's face it, we have too many multimillion-dollar houses that cannot be defended right smack in the line of fire.

There are insurance challenges now, as the private market is drying up. Whether the state will fully come in and pick up where the privates have left off, I don't know. I'd love to see what the insurance commissioner has to say about this because he's going to be making that decision.

Elaborate, please, on the housing insurance policy challenges.

I think that if we simply say, “Okay, the state of California will suck it up and do everything that the private industry used to do, and nobody has to do anything new to change things around,” that would be certainly a waste of an opportunity and a waste of taxpayer money.

If you get the state of California to essentially subsidize where housing should not have been built in the first place and have a serious program of saying, “here's the class of houses we simply will not insure”, politically, I don't think that's going to be very pleasing to a lot of elected officials. But this has become such a multi billion-dollar issue, we can't ignore it anymore.

How would you like California’s Insurance Commissioner to respond?

I think the Insurance Commissioner should, on a rolling basis, devote maybe 10 or 20 percent of the amount that we would pay to pay back the folks who would lose, take the worst of the worst, and say “thank you very much; here's a check. We're going to return this to nature.”

Now, this is the worst of the worst. These are the places where you can't really have mitigation, where everybody agrees it’s going to go next time. At a certain point, I think I'd love the Insurance Commissioner to say, “We're here to help these homeowners out. It's an opportunity for you,” and have nothing forced about it.

I think a lot of folks at this point would take that opportunity. Now, there will be the mega-zillionaires with their mansions on the top of the hill that you can see from everywhere in Southern California, who will say “no, I’m staying.” But there might very well be a number of folks who have been through so many of these fires with so much emotional hassle and pressure say, “let's go someplace else.”

The last couple of years there's been action at the state legislature to encourage housing production and relieve local governments of authority over planning and zoning. Is the state's goal of accelerating housing production at odds with priorities related to fire protection, resiliency, and questions of where to build, and how to build?

Fortunately, the legislature did not adopt a “if it's buildable, build it and forget the consequences”. Special ecological areas and other categories are exempted from those provisions. I think that everyone recognizes that that's a smart thing to do. You're not going to solve our housing needs by building over wetlands and wildlife corridors. Those are expensive places to build. Let's find places where we can put the housing where it's not in conflict with nature. I think that there's a recognition of that.

Turning to the governor's just-released budget proposal and its noteworthy investments to advance climate resilience, does the governor’s spending plan align with his stated conservation and open space priorities?

I think that the governor's plan has not been fully articulated yet. The legislature is going to have a big say in it. But for example, our highest priority is completing the wildlife corridor bridge over the 101 freeway. The governor put $10 million in right off the bat with nobody having to beg or plead. Caltrans has already put out the request for contract, and as soon as they get that back and get it approved, then there will be at least a formal groundbreaking. Probably in late April, somewhere in there.

I think you're going to see a huge funding proposal come when the governor's 30x30 plan, which is making sure we've saved 30 percent of California by 2030, is approved by the Natural resources Resources Agency. agenc. We're making the down payment on that investment right now.

I've never been so jazzed. We've done these interviews for 10 to 15 years now. I always try to pronounce that things are getting better, but they really are getting better now. We have a governor that's been committed, and I could not be more enthusiastic.

I want to say there's been a realization in the state government and around the world. People have been looking at their watches and saying, “if we're going to do something, we better start doing it now.” A lot of people are thinking of intimations of one's mortality here. Administrations have mortalities, regimes have mortalities, ecological regimes have mortalities. Putting those things together now, when we have a genuine budget surplus, it's going to happen. We're going to look back at 2022 as a watershed year.

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There's a sizable infusion of federal infrastructure money coming to California and some have raised the concern that local, regional, and state governments lack the capacity to oversee that these new dollars are wisely accounted for and invested. What say you re the capacity of the state and localities to wisely deploy these resources?

I don't have any question that we can do it wisely. We, fortunately, don't have a Central Valley rail kind of an issue here. I think each of the projects have been pretty thoroughly vetted. If you're asking if I think we have a boondoggle problem? No.

LA County voters passed Measure W a couple years ago to fund multipurpose water and infrastructure projects. And the City of LA  more than a decade ago passed a like measure, Measure O. Assessing the impact of  both measures, have their campaign promises been met?

We always wanted two or three times the number of LA City projects that could be funded. But let's face it, without starting with Measure O and those investments, we wouldn't have Taylor Yard. Unless we had those funding sources, we would not have the leading investment here that the city was required to come up with to secure new federal money. And, we wouldn't have any of the excitement that there is around the river right now. In hindsight, these two measure look comparatively small.

Moreover, we've got pedestrian bridges over the LA River. We've got a kayak program in the river; all of those kinds of things. It used to be that when you went into the Tom Bradley terminal, you were met with our smiling Mayor on one of our conservancy kayaks, saying Welcome to LA, look at all the good great stuff that we have. Candidly, that's the direct result of the fact that the citizens embraced and approved both measures.

Let’s pause to afford you an opportunity to remind readers who may not be familiar with the SMMC  and/or you (see TPR past interviews) of the jurisdiction and mission of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy?

Essentially, our jurisdiction is all the Southern California mountains. We go all the way into Ventura County, almost up to Kern County and down almost into Orange County. We have a number of partnerships and Joint Powers Authorities, which even further expand that reach. If there's a mountain area or an open space area that needs to be conserved, we'll find a way of working with local government partners and others to get it done.

How much land for public use and recreation have SMMC been able to preserve over the last three+ decades?

We're now bumping up against 100,000, and that's still not enough.

Pivoting back to public infrastructure investment,  LA Mayor Garcetti announced this week $28 million in federal infrastructure funding for the LA River Restoration Project, enabling 11 miles of habitat restoration near the Arroyo Seco Confluence and the Taylor Yard site. Address  the significance of such investment, especially in proportion to what's needed?

Well, it's a small proportion of what's needed. I think you have already reported that the total need, if we were to implement the so called ARBOR study by the Corps of Engineers, is in excess of a billion dollars. So, this is a small down payment.

What it is though, is a continuation of the city's commitment. I hope that the next mayor will be as assiduous as the current mayor has been about protecting the river. The big challenge is that there are a lot of folks who say there shouldn't be really any water in the LA River and that we should be recycling it. ‘One water’ is a term that the city likes better than ‘toilet to tap.’

We do need to address how much of the LA river water is going to be for nature, for recreation, for kayaking, and how much they are going to attempt to recycle it into the One Water program. That's a big public policy issue, and I think we need to address that sooner rather than later. 

How should that policy question – water flow in the LA River - be addressed?

Well, I think the first question is: how much water we need to have a viable ecosystem within the LA River? This is the same question that we ask about any of our river systems. The State Water Resources Control Board right now is doing a study called a flows study, about what are the minimum flows necessary for each of the ecological systems. There's a lot of pressure though to say that it started out as an Arroyo, so let's suck it dry.

There are a lot of folks who were taking that position. I would hope that the next mayor, whoever that may be, puts a steely eye onto the problem and says that we're going to allocate enough water, so we have a real river in the LA River. 

Lastly, in 2020, poet and FOLAR founder Lewis MacAdams passed away.  Could you comment on his continuing legacy and its influence what's being done on the LA River; and on you?

As his legacy is brought into finer focus, it really is the poet in the man. His various comments on EIRs or on projects, all that recedes into the background. I know that they're going to be putting out a new edition of his works in his role as the poet laureate for the LA River. I personally was moved by that poem that we inscribed where he says the river Norns reached out from under the temporary concrete covering and asked for help [“We ask if we can speak on its behalf in the human realm. We can’t hear the river saying no, so we get to work”]. That's a haunting view, that that area of the river, even under the worst of circumstances, reaches out. For those of us who have been reached by Lewis's poetry, it's haunting and continually revealing. So, Lewis, you're still with us.

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