By Kym Cunningham, Contributing Writer
Looking out over the green and blue expanse of Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park, it is difficult to believe the transformation that has occurred since the groundbreaking ceremony three years ago.
A shoreline covered in hazard-orange mesh nets to protect the adolescent plant life has replaced the jungle of invasive weeds, human refuse and toxic chemicals. Reggie, an alligator who eluded official capture for almost two years between 2005 and 2007, is nowhere in sight.
Although backhoes and dirt plumes still mar the scenery, it is decidedly better than the motorcycles that used to crash, unimpeded by or unheeding of any apathetic government workers exiled to this wasteland.
“It was Siberia as far as the city was concerned,” Martin Byhower said.
A lifelong conservationist and scientist by trade, Byhower had been a staple at the park since 1984, when he first visited the area to watch the many species of birds that use the park as a migratory staging area. Home to the only natural lake in Southern Los Angeles County — Machado Lake, which itself spans 45 acres — the 290-acre park was one of the few wetlands these migratory birds could access.
“The park is a world-class birding area,” Byhower said. “The historic birding list for Harbor Park is larger than any other place I know of in the state.”
But when Byhower first visited the park in 1984, this migratory menagerie was not what he encountered at all. Instead, he found a smog-filled sky above a lake contaminated with DDT, chlorine compounds, and levels of heavy metal capable of harming any unwary swimmers. The land wasn’t any better. Aside from the trash freckling the landscape, the park had become a nexus for so-called criminal elements: homeless people, prostitutes and drug addicts congregated — and sometimes lived — within the confines of the park after having been excluded from modern society.
“The park was kind of a microcosm for everything that could go wrong,” Byhower said.
How Everything Went Wrong
Byhower said that the park’s degradation stemmed from two different albeit entwined sources: the local lack of political advocacy and confusion between city and county jurisdictions.
When Byhower began pulling for the park in the 1980s, he found that local community members — from areas like Watts, Wilmington and Harbor City — who wanted to restore the park were shut out of big city Los Angeles politics.
“All of those areas were basically ignored,” Byhower said. “They had no political pull. They had no political advocacy.”
And those who actually did have power in city and county government were loath to take responsibility for an area that might not be a part of their jurisdictions.
“Whenever something was wrong, each side blamed the other,” Byhower said. “No one wanted to know [about the problems]. No one took responsibility.”
But Byhower didn’t believe that the government’s refusal to accept responsibility was malicious; rather, he called this game of jurisdictional hot-potato something common in modern government: “benign neglect.” Byhower also attributed some of the responsibility for the truly atrocious state of the park — which once housed over 167 otherwise homeless occupants — to overall community neglect.
“It was a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Byhower said. “If you don’t use it, it’s going to decay and then the people who come there are going to prevent people from using it.”
Starting with Clean Water
In 2004, Byhower succeeded in getting the Clean Water Bond, or Proposition O, passed, providing almost $130 million to restore the park.
“Prop. O was supposed to support water quality, habitat and recreational activities,” said Byhower. “[It] was geared primarily at creating a sort of natural environment park. Other parks don’t even have the constraints of Prop. O.”
To create this natural conservation area, Ken Malloy Park cannot have many of the other activities offered at parks unconstrained by Prop.O: pedal boats and the feeding of feral animals, including ducks, would force the local fauna from their natural breeding habitats.
To accomplish this mammoth task, city workers wanted to ensure that the park’s design included measurements for water conservation. Within one year, staff members hope that the entire park will be irrigated using reclaimed water from Terminal Island.
To monitor such activities the old concessions building is being converted into an onsite ranger headquarters.
Vacuum barges sucked up hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic sediment, replacing the lake’s benthic layer with gravel to foster a cleaner and more sustainable ecosystem. More than 400 trees were planted to improve the park’s air quality and visual aesthetics.
After the heavy rains of this past winter, much of the area flooded. However, the storm drain system collected 25 tons of trash that would have otherwise polluted the newly cleaned lake water.
On Jan. 30, Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino announced that 90 percent of the park’s cleanup and restoration is complete. However, unpredicted rains and flooding delayed construction and maintenance activities. Workers estimate that the project will be finished in May or June of this year.
It will be more than a year before water quality tests allow the California Fish and Wildlife Service to stock the lake with bass, trout and catfish. Fishing will be allowed only on designated piers, and a catch-and-release policy will be instituted to prevent disturbance of aquatic plants and wildlife.
Kaiser-Permanente is allotting a $100,000 grant to subsidize a number of fitness and health programs intended to help improve the health of the surrounding community.
To promote community involvement, Buscaino plans to re-establish the previously intermittent Park Advisory Board, although many are skeptical as to this committee’s effectiveness. In Byhower’s experience, the board resembled many, often contradictory, voices screaming at one another in an empty room.
Similarly, many people still do not understand the limitations placed upon the park by Prop. O.
“There are people who are misguided about what the programming should be for the park even at this point,” Byhower said. “I have a lot of trepidation about it.”
How It Could Go Wrong (Again)
Byhower’s trepidation stems from his experience with the Harbor City Greenway cleanup — a Prop. O project similar in restoration to although much smaller in scale than Ken Malloy Park.
“[It] is turning out to be a real fiasco,” Byhower said.
The Greenway’s problem originates from inattention to the importance of removing invasive plant species. During the restoration, workers planted local flora among the same invasive plant species that had killed it off before. Admitting ignorance, city officials claimed the Harbor City Greenway served as their ‘learning ground’ for Ken Malloy Park, admissions which make Byhower nervous for the future of Ken Malloy Park.
“You still can’t get [Harbor City Greenway] right.” Byhower said. “What idea would we actually have that we’re going to get Harbor Park right?”
Byhower also witnessed the same benign neglect after the Greenway cleanup that he cited as a cause of Ken Malloy Park’s degradation.
“They build it and they go away and it falls into disrepair because nobody knows what to do,” Byhower said. “[Harbor City Greenway] is a mess and I don’t see a whole lot of movement to fix it, which makes me worried.”
Byhower was also concerned with the fishing that will be offered at Ken Malloy Park.
“Fishermen consistently leave fishing line and hooks and that kills the birds that nest there,” Byhower said.
Byhower is still fighting Buscaino, among others, on the usage of pedal boats in the lake.
“Because Joe wants to stay popular in the community … he keeps bringing it up as something that the community might want there,” Byhower said. “If he’s going to bring things up, he has to bring things up that are feasible and that are allowable.”
Homelessness has been another problem for Ken Malloy Park that many don’t view as having been solved. Thus far, the short-sighted and ineffective solution to remove the homeless has been to enforce curfews and ban overnight camping while clearing away any brush or overgrowth where individuals might hide. Short of providing them with free housing, little is to prevent individuals with no other place to turn from re-congregating in the newly restored park, a much more inviting place than, say, a highway underpass.
More than anything, it seemed that Byhower wanted people to use the park, but with a conscious respect for the natural habitat. He spoke of the misconception associated with being an environmentalist.
“There’s this belief that us tree-huggers are trying to tie up the resource and prevent others from using it,” said Byhower. “But how could anybody not be an environmentalist? For me, it’s logical because I’m a scientist…. It’s being a survivalist…. It’s being someone who wants to live on a healthy, sustainable earth.”
Byhower suggested that the park be subject to constant patrolling and maintenance of infrastructure by a mixture of civilians and government officials committed to the success of this park in relation to Prop. O. Byhower said that there needs to be a park staff to monitor the park’s attendees, programing, infrastructure and ecosystem.
At the beginning of any new park or restoration project, the individuals hired to monitor parks are highly certified. However, they are also the first to go after budget cuts.
“Because of the high turnover rate, there was no institutional memory,” Byhower said. “No one knew how to take care of things or solve problems that arose.”
For Ken Malloy Park, Byhower only saw two potential outcomes: fostering the park into a flourishing environment or allowing it to dissolve into entropy.
“Are they just going to go away and leave this project, or are they going to leave behind people who are going to monitor, clean up, enforce and educate,” Byhower asked. “If that stuff doesn’t happen, then it has all kind of been a waste.”
What Ken Malloy Could Be
But Byhower remained hopeful as to what Ken Malloy Park could look like, instead of what he was worried it might become.
“There’s so many ways that the park can serve the community,” Byhower said.
Byhower cited birding as a huge moneymaking venture in ecotourism. He also said that the park could provide a great opportunity for community members to become students of nature.
“Of course, you’re never going to get a natural aquatic ecosystem back,” Byhower said. “It’s a storm drain and any time anybody dumps a critter down the toilet, it’s going to end up there.”
But sometimes restoration is more about the environment’s health than its history.
“The idea is that the water will be cleaner and purer and won’t support nearly as many [invasive species],” Byhower said. “It will be a different kind of ecosystem, hopefully, and it will support different species.”
Byhower suggested that local government invest in a Friends of the Park organization, similar to the Friends of Madrona Marsh project.
“That’s a huge and powerful organization that saves the city a lot of money,” Byhower said. “If the city just provided a little bit of funding to help it get started, they would probably get volunteers. Once people see what the park can be, they’re going to love it and they’re going to want to help it.”
Byhower is still watching Councilman Buscaino, skeptical as to how closely the letter and spirit of Prop. O will be followed and for how long.
“They’ve invested all this money in the park, you would think that they would take some pride in it,” Byhower said. “But it remains to be seen.”