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The butterflies of El Segundo thrive in a little-known preserve

An El Segundo Blue butterfly. (Photo: esbcoalition.)

The 2028 Summer Olympics will take place in Los Angeles between July 21 and Aug. 6, 2028. The event will cost an estimated $6.9 billion, will host 15,000 athletes, and could potentially attract at least one million visitors, both foreign and domestic. Most of them will pass through Los Angeles International Airport near one of Southern California’s smallest, most unassuming natural areas: The El Segundo Butterfly Preserve.

The ancient Olympic Games began as a small-scale religious and sporting event for the Greeks, where its fingerprint remained limited. When the Olympics were revived as an international event centuries later, the world had grown interconnected, participating countries had grown, too, and the Olympics became big business.

Different countries take turns hosting the Olympic Games, and millions, sometimes billions, of dollars get spent to prepare cities to host the monumental, international event, because the Olympics generates an enormous amount of tourist dollars and foreign investment. Host cities make large infrastructural changes, from improving roads to increasing public transportation systems to building new parking lots and temporary housing, even building new sports facilities.

As beloved as the Olympic Games is, it has also drawn criticism for the way it leads many host cities to inflict irreparable damage on their natural environment, their architecture, and their most vulnerable populations in marginalized neighborhoods.

In Seoul, South Korea, the 1988 Summer Olympics led to the forced removal of 720,000 people. In Beijing, China, construction for the 2008 Summer Olympics led to the destruction of an estimated 800 hutongs, which are cultural significant residential neighborhoods made of courtyard homes built along narrow streets—the quintessential look of historic northern Chinese communities. It also led to the relocation of 1.5 million people.

In Sochi, Russia, the 2014 Winter Olympics cost $51 billion U.S. dollars and all but erased the large wetland plain known as the Imeretinskaya Lowland, which was filled with wildlife, rare plants, and provided an important layover for migratory birds on the eastern Black Sea flyway. That’s not even mentioning the environmental and social impact of the games in London, Tokyo, or Rio de Janeiro. For context, 1.2 million tourists visited Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the 2016 Summer Olympics. 410,000 of them hailed from foreign countries. That’s a lot of mouths to feed, a lot of waste generated, a lot of airplane fuel burned, creating a big carbon footprint.

After 1932 and 1984, 2028 will mark Los Angeles’ third time hosting the Games. Thankfully, this time L.A. seems to have taken public concerns and the Games’ checkered past into account, because so far, they’re doing things differently. The L.A. Olympics’ official website states that L.A. metro is already equipped with enough existing infrastructure and sports facilities — and as an international destination, is already used to accommodating tourists — that no new permanent venues or infrastructure need to be built. That’s a relief.

When I saw news that L.A. would host the Games, I thought immediately about whether all those visitors streaming through Los Angeles International Airport would lead to an airport expansion, and my mind went straight to the western end of LAX, where the small El Segundo Butterfly Preserve sits between the tarmac and the ocean. This is a reflexive reaction, because with L.A. always seeming to be growing or burning, and the region’s remaining native habitat shrinking, I fear that some large economic push or wildfire will finally spell the end of this fragile, one-of-a-kind piece of L.A.’s native ecology. The Olympics don’t seem to be it.

In fact, it’s arguably too irrational to work. It’s Los Angeles World Airports, the city’s airport authority, who overseas both LAX and manages the preserve. They employ an Environmental Specialist to check fences, monitor the butterfly’s hatch and the condition of recent revegetation efforts. I still worry. I worry because I love.

Nature in the flight path
This fragile landscape has evaded destruction over the decades. In fact, it’s the direct result of failed residential development — a land reborn.

Named for the endangered Euphilotes battoides allyni butterflies it protects, El Segundo Butterfly Preserve sprawls north and south along a narrow strip of hilly land between the beach and LAX. Perched directly under LAX’s flight path, south of Playa Del Rey, the land once contained the Surfridge residential community and is still threaded by some of its old cracked streets and foundations. Concrete foundations, hydrants, and aging light poles dot the hillsides, along with the occasional ornamental palm leftover from the time when people lived here. Now, barbed wire and “No Trespassing” signs keep people out, though the beguiling sight of abandoned streets keeps beachgoers peering through the fence, wondering what happened. What happened is that the land stood too close to Los Angeles International Airport.

What started as a dirt runway in a wheat and lima bean field in 1928 grew so busy after WWII, that the municipal airport began inching west, toward Surfridge, which eventually placed its houses directly under the flight path.

When commercial airlines switched to jet engines during the 1960s and ’70s, noise and air pollution created conflicts with locals. Residents had to raise their voices to talk. Homes rattled when planes took off. The exhaust fumes grew intense. For Los Angeles, business was good. Millions of air passengers arrived every year. LAX wanted to expand, but Surfridge stood in the way.

Under the guise of noise mitigation efforts, the City of Los Angeles used eminent domain to buy out Surfridge’s residents in the 1960s and ’70s, relocating or demolishing the 800 houses, and condemning the ones that belonged to the people who wouldn’t sell. The neighborhood stood vacant until 1975, when bulldozers tore down the remaining structures but left the streets. Birds flitted between bushes. Weeds colonized the dry hillsides, including invasive ice plant and acacia, which are so ubiquitous along the coast that many Californians assume they’re native. In the process, the vacant land became the best remaining habitat for the El Segundo Blue Butterfly.

Like many southern California butterflies and moths, the El Segundo Blue depends on a single host plant to survive—the native Dune Buckwheat, Euphilotes battoides allyni where it lays its eggs in the shrub’s bushy limbs, feasts on its flowers, and spends its entire short life in and around the plant’s flowerheads. As the butterfly lost its habitat to houses, oil, and agriculture throughout the 20th century, the tiny insect’s numbers dropped. In 1976, scientists counted approximately 500 remaining insects. The El Segundo Blue Butterfly became the first insect added to the Federal Endangered Species List, but they would need habitat to survive.

As Surfridge sat vacant and the butterfly sat on the Endangered Species List, the City of Los Angeles eventually recognized the property’s ecological value and, in 1986, launched LAX’s Dunes Restoration Project. Non-native plants were removed, native species reseeded, and butterflies monitored. In April 2013, 28 years later, the City removed a few of Surfridge’s roads, curbs, and foundations from a northern section of the property. In their place, they replanted native Dune Buckwheat, poppies, goldenbush, and salt grass.

Cars pass by on Pershing Drive. Waves break at Dockweiler State Beach. Every few minutes, an enormous jet passes overhead, thundering as it leaves a trail of exhaust in the warm coastal air. And in those bushy Buckwheat limbs, the butterflies live as they always have.

Measured by the butterfly’s numbers, the preserve is a success. In 2012, scientists estimated the Preserve’s population to be around 90,000—a huge improvement from the 500 that remained in 1976. Others estimated the population at 125,000.

Like so many western California natural areas, this preserve is surrounded by houses, light industrial activities, and roads — lots of roads. Two-story homes overlook the property, forming a loosely rectangular boundary with Dockweiler State Beach, the tarmac, and the old Chevron oil refinery. To me, this is what makes the preserve symbolic of southern California conservation in general: fragile land that elbows itself some room in a densely populated region amid extractive industry. It’s precisely the kind of landscape that I want to teach my daughter to appreciate, or at least recognize: small but special, and hard to spot in the margins of people’s day-to-day lives. Drivers can easily race by California’s Big Morongo Canyon Preserve on State Route 62 without noticing it, just as I-5 travelers speed by the Tule Elk State Natural Reserve west of Bakersfield without knowing Tule Elk exist. Sixty-six million people flew from LAX in 2013, and many passed over the preserve.

Some Olympic Games have made their own environmental impact a part of the programming and made efforts to mitigate those impacts.

The 2000 Sydney Games installed solar panels on the Athlete’s Village and on the roof of the basketball venue, and they provided free bus and train transportation to visitors commuting to the Games. During the 2012 Games in London, 62% of the event’s waste generated got recycled, composted, or reused, and research measured a 29% increase in cyclists in central London compared to 2011. That’s a small piece of the puzzle, but that is progress.

I’m relieved that no LAX expansion or Olympics infrastructure plans have so far chipped away at the little natural haven. Even though the butterfly preserve is protected, I still worry about its fate. The land and its insects have evaded so much already that it would be even more tragic if some fire or redevelopment scheme got them now. Yes, the 2028 Olympics are a long way off. At this rate, it’s easy to imagine that the planet may well have burned up and blown away by then, either by nuclear war or climate change.

But as so many parts of our lives feel increasingly vulnerable to the state of the world, it’s important to recognize the vulnerability of the state’s existing protected places, if only to remind ourselves how quickly they can be lost to well-funded organizations with a lot more power and funds than this little preserve.

That’s why I bring it to your attention now: Whether you’re visiting L.A. to enjoy the Olympics or you live here year-round, this little jewel exists, it’s worth celebrating, because whether you peer at it through the chain link fence or from high above in a plane, parcels like this connect Los Angeles back to a time before it was Los Angeles.

This little living bridge to history exists for the butterflies, but it also reminds visitors and residents alike what this incredible coastline looked like back when the Greeks created the Olympic Games, when this scrubby coastline was Indigenous land, long before the name America existed.

Editor’s Note: Aaron Gilbreath, author of “The Heart of California: Exploring the San Joaquin Valley,” is a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly.

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