Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, November 11, 1998

Documenting the
battle to save wetlands

By Tim Ryan


Does Los Angeles need another 10,000 homes, 1,500 hotel rooms, 900,000 square feet of retail space, 1.3 million square feet of office space, all at the expense of a barely surviving wetland?

HIFF That's the question asked in the poignant film "The Last Stand: The Struggle for the Ballona Wetlands" hosted by actor Edward Asner and produced by former Hawaii resident Sheila Laffey.

Wetlands are being destroyed at a stunning rate: 53 percent of the wetlands in the United States have been destroyed; in Southern California, 95 percent of the original wetlands are gone, all traded for development.

And what happens in one city can happen in another if people don't draw a line in the sand to save what will be lost forever.

The Ballona -- pronounced "Buy-owna" -- Wetlands are a complex of estuary, lagoon, salt marsh, freshwater marsh and dune habitats found near Playa del Rey on the west coast of the Los Angeles Basin. Currently, Ballona is about 200 acres, 10 percent of what existed in the mid-19th century. Even so, it is the last large area of this habitat type in Los Angeles County.

Ballona is the center of controversy due to a proposal to develop two-thirds of the land for the "Playa Vista project," which includes a major studio complex by Dreamworks, owned by filmmakers Stephen Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Developers at Playa Capital agreed to provide for 297 acres of wetlands in exchange for the right to develop the rest of the land. Developers say the project would provide 30,000 jobs, and millions in tax revenues for California.

The documentary follows a coalition of 86 groups trying to save Ballona. Images include a woman locking herself to a developer's tractor, actor Martin Sheen chaining the developer's office doors shut, marches and speeches at City Hall. It is pure grassroots protest made more memorable with a soundtrack by Joni Mitchell, Kenny Loggins and Joe Walsh.

Despite being surrounded by traffic-packed highways, cinematographer Todd Brunelle captured remarkable shots of Ballona wildlife, such as red foxes, young herons learning to fly, a variety of frogs, fish and snakes.

DreamWorks has refused to comment, but Spielberg joked that "all froggies" are invited to live in what he envisions as a new and improved Ballona.

A child at the end of the film provides a bottom line perspective to out-of-control development: "If we were in the animals' place, we wouldn't want them building on our turf."

Now showing

Bullet World premiere: "The Last Stand: The Struggle for the Ballona Wetlands

Bullet Neighbor islands: Showings 8 p.m. Sunday at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, Maui; 4:30 p.m. Monday at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Sheraton Kauai

Bullet Call: 528-HIFF

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