Ensuring the Survival of California’s Coastal Wetlands with Friends of Ballona Wetlands’ Lisa Fimiani

August 22, 2011

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored today to have with us on the line Lisa Fimiani, the Executive Director of the Friends of Ballona Wetlands. Welcome to Green is Good, Lisa. LISA FIMIANI: Thank you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Lisa, Mike and I a couple days before the show, we were reading over your bio, and it’s unusually impressive and a wonderful journey. But instead of us reading it, can you share with our listeners a little bit your journey to how you became the Executive Director of the Friends of Ballona Wetlands? LISA FIMIANI: Sure. Well, I moved here over a quarter of a century ago to the West Coast from the East Coast, and I wanted to volunteer for a local non-profit. I just saw that they had a volunteer event down in the wetlands, pulling non-native plants, and I came down and just liked the people so much that I was volunteering with that I’ve been a member ever since. Over the years, that grew to becoming a Board member and eventually pitching an open position with the organization for Executive Director. I served as co-ED for over a year with a wonderful gentleman who’s left the country, literally, but his passion is still with us. He started our original blog last summer, and I have to tell you, once you get infected with the passion of nature, it doesn’t matter where you are. That’s it. You’re hooked for life. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, it’s so funny. Today you’re part of a wonderful show on Green is Good, and we’re so thrilled that you joined us, Lisa, because the first half of the show we had the leadership on from the National Wildlife Federation, so to have you on the second half is just so fitting, and what your great organization does and is. Can you share with our listeners a little bit about the why? Why do wetlands matter? LISA FIMIANI: Wetlands serve as the lungs and as the kidneys of the land, really. What I explain to kids when they come out and they stand on the viewing platform and look out into the 128-square mile watershed of the Ballona wetlands, I ask them to think about what happens to the water as it comes through the storm drains to the ocean. As it’s coming through our wetlands, if the wetlands are healthy, they’re going to cleanse the water and they’re going to purify the air. But if the wetlands aren’t healthy, then it’s just going to exacerbate a growing situation that’s, unfortunately, worldwide now. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so interesting. You’ve been with the Ballona wetlands for about 25 years. The Ballona wetlands has been around about 33 years. How did it come to be? Talk a little bit about, then, the history of, more specifically, the Ballona wetlands. LISA FIMIANI: The organization that I work for is about as grassroots as you can get. It started in the living room of our founder, Ruth Lansford, with a bunch of neighbors and some local professors who were very concerned about the degraded wetland outside Ruth Lansford’s door in Playa del Rey. What they found out was the land was slated for development, and they filed the first lawsuit to stop all development plans on the property, and it took three developers, two developers kind of gave up, and the third one said, “You know what? I’m going to sit at the table and I’m going to work something out with you and with the state and local agencies, and do as much as we can to save the wetlands.” That’s been our story. But what’s interesting is when you get into this line of passion, I guess, or work, and Ruth wasn’t paid, she just did it out of the goodness of her heart along with the other Board members, you find that there comes a time when you need to put down the legal pen and say, “Alright, maybe it’s time to compromise,” and that’s what occurred here. The plans for development were quite extensive, and what we and a lot of other groups were able to convince the community of Playa Vista to do, was to save as much of the land as they can to build green, and they did. And then unbeknownst to us, they were willing and ready and able to sell most of the property that they owned back to the state to be eventually designated as an ecological reserve. But this happened over many years, and what I would want to convey to people is you don’t save wildlife and habitat by standing on the fringe and constantly complaining. There comes a point, once you get somebody’s attention, that you have to sit down and work out a deal. And that’s all about life, compromise and making things happen. I think we did what was best for the wetlands, and we will always do what’s best for the wetlands. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so amazing. For our listeners out there, if you have your laptop or desktop or your iPad with you, Lisa’s site is just really beautiful and engaging, and also very solution-oriented. Please go to www.ballonafriends.org. You have a beautiful button on the top of your toolbar that says, “Why Wetlands Matter.” What I love about your website here, Lisa, is that it not only gives some history and beautiful pictures, obviously, and compelling pictures, but it also is very solution-oriented. Like under your Why Wetlands button, it says, “Five things you can do.” What a nice way to be so solution-oriented and to draw the user in to being part of the solution. That’s such a great way to approach the problems that face us all, especially environmentally now. LISA FIMIANI: Yes, and the message that we give to people who come and visit the wetlands, they can take back to their own communities and apply the same principles and make something happen. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so great. The great part about you being there 25 years and the history and the continuity that you now have is that you have great perspective. What are some of the changes that you see in the last 25 years of your involvement that you can share with our listeners, changes of note in terms of lessons learned? LISA FIMIANI: Well, initially we filed the first lawsuit, and that got everybody’s attention. Of course, people have a negative reaction to that. Once we got everyone’s attention and once they realized we were very serious about what we were doing, they realized also we were willing to sit down and be reasonable and talk about solutions. Over the years, we have worked out really good projects with the city and the state and the local flood control district, the Army Corps of Engineers. We’ve improved the tide gates. More fresh water is coming into the wetlands, and more tidal flow water is coming in. At times, when nobody wanted to sit down and talk with one another, so we have been a deal maker. We’ve gotten in there with groups that were completely diametrically opposed, and again, the number one principle of this organization, why I’ve been with them as long as I have, is it’s all about the wetlands. When you realize that 95-98% of wetlands in the state of California are gone, you really start realizing how important this 600 acres is to restore and bring back to life. The old saying, if you build it, they will come. Apply this to build a 26-acre freshwater marsh and restore the riparian corridor, and in doing so, over 200 species of birds now live in the area, and they either migrate through or they nest. It’s just completely changed the topography of the area, and people now realize there’s life out there. It’s like having a park in your backyard, and that’s the whole point. We can have urban parks. We can have urban wildlife. You can do it in balance, but it’s about compromise. I’m afraid to keep going back to that word. It’s not one that I wanted to hear myself utter when I was back in college because I was, of course, completely in favor of all wildlife and nature since I was a little girl. But you find out you cannot be so absolute in the world of today. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What I love on your website is you have your mission, and your mission is so simple. First of all, it gives a little description that the Ballona wetlands has been involved for 33 years. But as you said, Lisa, it’s a grassroots organization. 70,000 volunteers, and your mission statement is so clear. Friends of Ballona Wetlands mission is to champion the restoration and protection of the Ballona Wetlands, involving and educating the public as advocates and stewards.” That’s nice. LISA FIMIANI: Yep. That’s it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk a little bit about your community and the reach out that you’ve been doing. How do you guys reach out, and how do your programs really work in terms of practicality? LISA FIMIANI: Well, about the same time I started volunteering, the local Audubon chapter got involved with the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, and they, by the way, were designated the stewards of the land years ago by the state because we were the first ones to file the lawsuit and we wanted to save the land. In doing so, Audubon decided to run some education programs through the Ballona wetlands, and they were bringing in kids from underserved communities, bussing them in. It evolved into this incredible education program that’s been going on now for over 25 years. We’ve been seeing thousands of kids a year. Hand in hand with that, we’ve been doing restoration. If it isn’t the school kids pulling non-native grasses or weeds in the wetlands, we’ve got people on the weekends doing it, and it just catches on. Kids go home and tell their parents. They come for one of our public days in the wetlands, and before you know it, you’ve got the local community, you’ve got communities all through southern California coming here. One of my goals is to make sure that what we do here is a model for other people to use to help restore and reinvigorate their wetlands, because again, so much is gone, so much is lost. But what nature and what birds are teaching us is you bring one little patch back, and you could save a species. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s amazing. In terms of new programs and new partnerships, what are you working on? 33 years is a long time, but, as we were just talking to our friends at the National Wildlife Federation, they’re celebrating 75 years. So, what’s next? What are the next programs and partnerships that you, as the Executive Director, have in mind for the Ballona wetlands? LISA FIMIANI: We have such an exciting future ahead of us. One of the things our founder started 10 years ago was this concept of a Ballona wetlands center at the trailhead of the Ballona wetlands. Later this year, we are going to have a grand opening of a brand new cultural and educational park that is going to stress urban ecology. Through this new park, we’re going to run all kinds of new educational programs with our new partners, Playa Vista, the developer, and the local university at the top of the hill, Loyola Marymount University. The kinds of programs we’re going to run are going to be getting people so excited about what they can do in their watersheds. I can’t wait. It’s so exciting what’s going to happen. One of the things we can’t do in the wetlands right now is we don’t have ADA-certified roads and walkways. We’ll have that in this new park. From there, we will be able to offer schools and communities and groups a suite of educational and restoration programs for them to do with us in our Ballona wetlands, or to go out into their own wetlands, and do the same thing. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. Wow. That’s the new discovery park. Who’s the developer on that? LISA FIMIANI: The developer is in the community of Playa Vista. Playa Vista donated the land, and the architect is Brenda Levin and Associates. She has done a fantastic job of putting in this representational park of a watershed, taking people from the mountains to the ocean in two acres of land. It’s going to be a showstopper. I can’t wait until it opens. We’re going to be seeing so many new people. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Have you worked with Brenda yourself? LISA FIMIANI: I have. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’ll tell you a little secret. I had no idea who the developer was or the architect, and I know Brenda all the way back to 1990, and she’s one of the most brilliant architects in the entire world, and one of the nicest people. So, I think you’re in great company there, it sounds like. LISA FIMIANI: Well, how lucky are we? Many times, great projects attract great people, and I am humbled by the number of quality, wonderful people that have come to us over the years and said, “We believe in what you’re doing. We’re going to support you.” It’s just going to keep getting better and better. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is such a positive way to be, Lisa. I want to go back to the Why Wetlands Matter. For our listeners out there, again, you can go see Ballona wetlands’ great and beautiful website, www.ballonafriends.org. Under Why Wetlands Matter, five things you can do. Donate online, volunteer time, protect our birds, take a tour, buy wetland prints. Can you walk us through some of those things you can do? Obviously, donating online, you don’t have to talk much about, but volunteer time, protect our birds, take a tour, buy wetland prints. Explain what those mean and what they mean to your great organization and how they continue to support your great mission. LISA FIMIANI: We have public tours every week of every month of the year, even holiday weekends. What we do is we bring people out into the wetlands to get their hands dirty, to pull some non-native plants, and to help us restore the acreage of land that we are stewards of and that we have been designated by the state to help restore. In doing so, by getting their hands dirty, people become connected with the land. All of a sudden, it’s like their backyard, their patch. It’s nice when people donate money, of course. We’re a non-profit, and we depend on donations, but I get just as excited when people say, “You know, I don’t have much money, but I’d like to come out and help you for one of your habitat restoration days.” We have those every month. When people come out here, they realize that this is a treasure in urban L.A. It’s the only one here for them to come and visit. No matter what time of year, you don’t know what you’re going to say because we’re in the Pacific flyway. This is a rest stop and a place for creatures of all kinds to show up unannounced, unexpected, and that makes it part of the excitement and the adventure of being outside and being part of an urban wildlife area. One of the things we do have as well is a print of a depiction by one of our original board members, the late Mary Thompson, who did a lot of studying. She was an artist, and she studied the local Kanave Indian nation, and portrayed what possibly could have been what Ballona wetlands looked like back at the turn of the century when the Native Americans were living here, and hunters and gatherers. It was a very rich and beautiful life back then. So, we provide a lot of history. We get people involved in restorations. They get out and get some fresh air. They see some beautiful birds, some butterflies, and they get the exercise that everybody so desperately needs in this city. We do it all, and I just love when people call up and say, “What can I do? I can only do this,” and I say, “Oh, but you have no idea how just coming out and helping us walk some kids through the wetlands, just being a docent, giving up your free time, you’re going to become so much more enriched yourself.” JOHN SHEGERIAN: Everybody has a place in service. LISA FIMIANI: That’s right. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Your great organization and the success that you’ve had with the Ballona wetlands, has it served as a paradigm? We have listeners, not only around the United States, but around the world. Do people who represent other wetland areas that want to use your paradigm for success in their community, do they come not only from around the United States, but do they actually come from around the world? LISA FIMIANI: Yes. We have had people, and you can go to our blog and look up our old articles from a year-and-a-half ago. We’ve had people from all over the world come here on coastal cleanup day, on Earth Day. We celebrate right along with a lot of other of our partners in the community, Heal the Bay, Santa Monica Bay Keeper, one of our partner non-profits. We call them the group up the creek. We’re down the creek, Ballona Creek Renaissance people. We all have the same mission. Bring people to nature and have them realize that right there in their own urban backyard, there is something to hang onto. We’ve had visitors from Africa, from China, from Europe, and we love it because we stay in touch with these people, and they learn things from us, and then we go to visit them. We learn things from them. We can trade off all this wonderful knowledge, and just make all of our wetlands a better place. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re down to the last couple of minutes or so, Lisa, unfortunately. But one last question with regards to the Ballona ecological reserve. Explain the state of California’s long-term restoration plans for the Ballona ecological reserve. LISA FIMIANI: Right now, the Ballona wetlands is basically cut in half by the Ballona Creek, which is a channelized concrete-lined creek that goes from downtown L.A. all the way to Santa Monica Bay in the Pacific Ocean. There’s 300 acres of the ecological reserve on one side, and another 300 acres on the other. What the state is proposing to do is one of, for lack of better words, five plans. One, do nothing, leave it as is, and give, turn it into a deep water harbor. We’d prefer something in the middle. We already have spent a great deal of time and effort in volunteer blood, sweat, and tears, on restoring nine acres of remaining dune habitat. If they bring in too much water, they’re going to flood out the dunes. If they don’t bring in enough, it’s going to the stay degraded in the areas that desperately need that tidal flow. So, it’s a balancing act, and what we’re hoping is the state will pick the best choice to invigorate the most amount of acreage of land without destroying flora and fauna and habitat. It’s going to be a real difficult project, but we’re going in it as one of the major stakeholders. We’re going to make sure they do what’s best for the wetlands. We think we’ve been good stewards, and we want to continue to be stewards of the land. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Lisa, you’re always invited to come on back and share your great story of stewardship, and the great story of stewardship at the Ballona wetlands with our listeners, both here in California, the United States, and around the world. We’re just so honored to have you with us today. We want our listeners to get involved. If you want to donate online or learn more about the great work at the Ballona wetlands and the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, please go to www.ballonafriends.org. First of all, Lisa Fimiani, Mike and I are humbled to have such an inspirational sustainability leader as you with us today, and you are truly living proof that green is good.