August 21, 2012

The Los Angeles Audubon Native Plant and Wildlife Garden Education Program at the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area (KHSRA)

By Jacqueline Li, LAAS Education Program Staff, and Sharese Arzu, 2012 Environmental Education Intern

A Snapshot of the Past & A Glimpse of the Future

Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area is a unique place that offers both a snapshot of the past and a glimpse of what the future could hold. The park, located in the Baldwin Hills area, is comprised of approximately 380 acres and is tucked in the foothills of La Cienega Blvd. Since the hills have been used for oil drilling and production since 1924, they have remained intact amid the vast urban development surrounding them. Consequently, a large area of natural open space has been preserved and is the only one left in urban Los Angeles.

The history of Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, its creation and the way people have used it since, speaks to an ever-changing relationship between humans and the environment. When the Baldwin Hills Dam collapsed in December of 1963, a 50-foot water wall burst down Cloverdale Avenue that killed five people and ripped apart the neighborhood below. The disaster raised a red flag about urban-area earthen dams and resulted in Division of Safety of Dams grasping tighter control of reservoirs across California. The 19-acre reservoir, created by the dam to supply drinking water for West Los Angeles residents, was never rebuilt. In 1968, County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn suggested it be turned into a park. By 1983, the Recreation Area was created and the empty lakebed was partially filled in to what is now referred to as Janice’s Green Valley. Today, a visitor will find lawns and landscaped areas, a fishing lake, an industrial landscape, a Japanese garden and large areas of native coastal sage scrub habitat – all in the same park!

Although the natural habitats of the Baldwin Hills are at risk because they are isolated by urbanization, they represent the largest remaining portion of the coastal sage scrub plant community in the Los Angeles Basin. These native plants and the native wildlife that depend on them are unique to Southern California and are all invaluable pieces of Los Angeles history and heritage. Given the existing healthy habitat still intact, Los Angeles has a rare and exciting opportunity to restore and revitalize important links between wildlife areas. After all, the vitality of these natural spaces and our relationship to them will tell an important story about the type of city we want to live in. A few threads of this story are already being woven at the Native Plant & Wildlife Garden in Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area.

The Native Plant & Wildlife Garden is an important refuge for wildlife species in the Baldwin Hills that cannot live in the surrounding citified areas. With over one million people living within a five-mile radius, the Baldwin Hills are nestled in the center of Los Angeles urban life. Centered in one of the most densely populated and ethnically diverse parts of California, the Los Angeles Audubon Native Plant & Wildlife Garden Education Program invites residents of all backgrounds to get curious about what’s growing, buzzing and chirping in their backyards.

The program operates in the classroom in addition to local wildlife habitat and encourages elementary and middle school students in the Los Angeles urban core to think critically about the conceptual connections of biodiversity, water quality, and urbanization. The Environmental Education Internship is another major component to the program. Interns are young men and women from the community who lead the field trips and teach students about native birds, plants and other wildlife of the Baldwin Hills. They help students collect data during their field trip and guide them in the use of binoculars and compasses.

Sometimes interns enter the program with a lot of background knowledge about birds in the Los Angeles region or the ecology of Southern California. Other interns may have little experience, but they do have a strong desire to learn more about the place where they live. Sharese Arzu, a biology major at Santa Monica College, was selected to be an environmental education intern this year. Over the six-month internship, Sharese demonstrated tremendous growth and leadership potential. Below Sharese reflects on her experience as an intern.

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Sharese Arzu, 2012 Environmental Education Intern for the Los Angeles Audubon Native Plant & Wildlife Garden Education Program. Sharese was one of six interns selected into the program this year.

My first step towards appreciating native plants and wildlife was during my first visit Yosemite National Park. I appreciated the beauty of Yosemite, but I did not realize how important the plants and wildlife species were. A few months after my trip to Yosemite, my friend informed me about an environmental education internship at Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area with the Los Angeles Audubon Society, where they teach third and sixth graders about native plants and wildlife. I thought to myself, “How can I teach someone else about native plants and wildlife when I don’t know anything about them myself?”

Despite my fear of not knowing anything about native plants and wildlife, I convinced myself to contact the program manager because interning at Kenneth Hahn Park would be an amazing opportunity for me. I was now interested to learn more about Kenneth Hahn Park. At the time, the only thing I knew was that it is surrounded by trees. I expected to learn a few things about myself during my experience as an intern, but I did not expect to learn how important parks like Kenneth Hahn are to our environment. I also did not expect my outlook on life to change as much as it did.



A panoramic vista as seen from a walking trail in Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area.


During the internship training, we were provided with a binder filled with key information about the Native Plant and Wildlife Garden Education Program. I was surprised by how much information and curriculum was dedicated to program.


3 recycling facility

Interns visit the Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility

4 margot teaching

Los Angeles Audubon Board Vice President & Chair of Education, Margot Griswold, gives a lecture on plant and soil ecology

5 interns janices green valley

Interns and volunteers practice their compass skills in Janice’s Green Valley at Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area.

I was nervous for our first class visit, but seeing the third graders run down the ramp motivated me to make sure the students enjoyed themselves and learned about native plants and wildlife at Kenneth Hahn. By the last class visit of the season, we were used to the students running down the ramp and were more prepared. By then we were acclimated to the questions students asked and we knew how to capture their attention. We knew how to make their visit exciting!

6 interns lead students  

Interns Valerie Serrano and Cehila Santiago lead students through a natural habitat hike at Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area.

In the Native Plant Garden, we knew to compare the laurel sumac to a taco because the leaves are shaped like a taco shell, which helps the leaves to retain water. We also knew to show how the native garden is important to our food web because the lizard that we see when the sun is coming out may get eaten by a snake, and that snake may get eaten by a Red-Tailed Hawk.

7 third graders

Third graders practice their bird watching skills at the Native Plant & Wildlife Garden.

At the Oil History/Natural Resources station, we informed the students about renewable and non-renewable resources. We also taught the students about the unintended consequences that led to the creation of the park, now an island of open space that wildlife and human beings both benefit from

8 history signage

Interns and volunteers learn about the history of the park.

While interning at Kenneth Hahn, I learned a lot about birds, insects and wildlife in our backyards and I also learned how to interpret information and ideas to people. This skill has made me into a more confident speaker. After working with the students at Kenneth Hahn, I no longer believe that parks are only for the beauty of the planet. I am also more appreciative and aware of my surroundings. For example, I help to clean up parks and also plant trees for environmental benefits. I believe that interning for youth education programs such as this one prove to today’s youth that the science we learn in school does not have to be boring and is very important.

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Interns and volunteers work with elementary school students on their science illustrations at the Native Plant & Wildlife Garden.

Published Western Tanager Vol. 79 No. 1 Sept/Oct 2012