Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area 

A park of the future that you should visit now!

By Cindy Hardin Environmental Education

The Los Angeles Audubon Society has been involved with Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area since 2005. LAAS has worked diligently to install a native plant and education garden and to restore natural habitat in various sections of the park. We are continually working to expand areas of coastal sage scrub habitat, and to educate school children about its importance through our environmental education field trips. We work closely with the County and the Baldwin Hills Conservancy to make this park a better habitat for local wildlife and more interesting for visitors to the park. Recently, the County has made some significant improvements to the site that dovetail nicely with the work that Audubon has been doing for years.

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You can see why the Matillija Poppy is nicknamed the “Fried Egg Poppy”.

The park is perched atop a section of the Baldwin Hills, on land that was reclaimed from industrial uses as oil fields, and probably most notoriously, as a reservoir. The dam for the reservoir failed in 1963, draining 290 million gallons of water in 77 minutes to the neighborhoods below. In 1979 the State of California granted $1,775,873.00 to the County to acquire land for the Baldwin Hills State Recreation Area, and a new park, right in the middle of the city, was formed.

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All that one needs for an al fresco workout

At that time the model for most parks was to provide lots of facilities for humans. Grass was planted, picnic pavilions, roads and bathrooms were built, and playground equipment and barbeque grills were installed. An artificial lake and stream were constructed, along with a Japanese Garden and Pavilion. The actual site of the reservoir was filled in and planted, and a paved trail was created along the perimeter. All of these features are still present in the park today, and enjoyed by many local residents.

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Too steep to mow! Toyon, Mulefat and Elderberry maintain a historical presence on the steep hillsides adjacent to the trail.

Fortunately for wildlife, several sections of the park included steep hillsides and small ravines that still had intact coastal sage scrub habitat. Walnut trees, Elderberry trees, California Sagebrush, Coastal Prickly Pear, Giant Wild Rye and Coyote Brush, among others, maintained a presence in these largely forgotten areas that were too steep to easily convert into manicured park space. In these sections of the park, wildlife continued to find shelter and fodder to survive. When visiting, we see many different birds, including Cedar Waxwings, Western Scrub Jays, Gnatcatchers, and several species of hawks, hummingbirds and warblers, to name a few. This past fall there were regular sightings of a Ferruginous Hawk! Skunks, possums, raccoons, lizards, and snakes all make homes for themselves as well. Spiders, insects and butterflies are found in abundance, too.

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Native Habitat replaces a Eucalyptus Grove and signage enriches the outdoor learning experience.

When Audubon started its work at the park the idea was to expand this existing natural habitat by replacing weedy areas and Eucalyptus groves with native plants. The first project was the Native Plant and Wildlife Garden, which continues to thrive. The garden is a wonderful outdoor learning lab, and includes detailed signage highlighting the plants and animals that can be found in the garden and at other spots in the park. There was no need to take up precious habitat space with a brick and mortar nature center; the signs and attendant wildlife in the great outdoors allow people to learn and discover on their own, in the habitat itself. Expansion and restoration of habitat continued with the removal of large areas of pampas grass, and this restoration is ongoing with recent native plantings. Some of the labor has been done by volunteers from the general public. However, much of what has been accomplished has been through the tireless efforts of our own Margot Griswold and Stacey Vigallon and students from Dorsey High School, who are participants in Audubon’s Baldwin Hills Greenhouse Program. The original plantings have by now really taken hold, and new areas continue to be converted to native plant zones. Most recently, the Dorsey crew installed over 200 native plants as part of a service day to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

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The County has been appreciative and supportive of our efforts, but last fall they embarked on a project that beautifully complements our own work. They developed a brand new section of the park called the Eastern Ridgeline Trail, and it is fantastic. It takes advantage of a sweeping view of the LA Basin that includes the mountains and downtown. Most of us have seen that iconic shot of downtown Los Angeles with a winter backdrop of snow covered local mountains. This is the view that is embraced by the Eastern Ridgeline Trail. The trail itself is of porous material, allowing rainfall to percolate back into the earth. Best of all, minimal areas of grass have been planted-most of the green areas are filled with native plants found in a coastal sage scrub habitat! The project is temporarily being irrigated in order for the young plants to become established. So, in spite of the paucity of rain this year, bush sunflowers are already blooming, and some clumps of sagebrush have grown to waist high. The trail abuts some of those steep ravines that I mentioned, and many types of native animals, like birds and lizards, are now present and foraging amongst this new vegetation. High quality outdoor exercise equipment has also been installed at intervals along the trail. This is particularly significant for the local community, as the surrounding zip codes have some of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the region.

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Native sunflowers and deerweed brighten the Eastern Ridge Trail.

Los Angeles Audubon’s environmental education program has benefited mightily from this new area, too. We use the trail as a staging area for tours that we provide for elementary school children. Students are able to compare the urban sprawl of Los Angeles to the natural areas that buffer the park. We teach them that loss of habitat is the number one reason for extinction or extirpation of a species. This part of the park allows students to learn firsthand about the importance of these “islands of habitat” within the urban core. They see local people using the exercise equipment, which brings home the point that the outdoors and outdoor activities are for people of all ages. We also ask the students if they would rather visit a park where they see only people, or if they would prefer to see some wild animals too. Seeing animals wins out by a large majority, and at Kenneth Hahn they are able to do just that.

There is increased interest and appreciation amongst the public for wild places that have become difficult to encounter as we go about our city lives. By bringing back habitat that was historically present in our region, we are creating a future model that allows space for ecosystems that have always been a part of Los Angeles. I think that many people would prefer to see wild habitat when they visit open space, especially those of us that live in urban areas. Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area is proof that human recreational activities can co-exist and even be enhanced by the presence of natural areas and indigenous plants and animals. Other benefits of this approach include less use of pesticides and fertilizers, and significant saving of precious water that will no longer be necessary to maintain vast expanses of lawn.

Now that I am a “Kenneth Hahn regular”, I have noticed something quite interesting about this park. Although it is very centrally located, almost none of my friends and neighbors have visited. Many of them do not even know where it is! People that have taken me up on my suggestion to go see the park are now repeat visitors. The site has so much to offer. It is 401 acres in size, and if you have read this far into the article, you know about all of its fabulous features. I live in Playa del Rey, and it takes me about 17 minutes to reach the park, most any time of the day. For folks who live in Culver City or Mid-city it is even closer. There is ample parking throughout the park, with one caveat-there is fee of six dollars per car that is charged on weekends and holidays. However, on weekays access and all facilities are absolutely free! I urge everyone to take the time to come out and see this urban oasis. You can come on your own, participate in the monthly LA Audubon bird walks led by Eric and Ann Brooks and Eleanor Osgood on the third Saturday of the month, or tag along on one of our Audubon school tours.

It’s well worth the visit. I hope to see you at the park!

Published Western Tanager Vol. 80 No. 4 March/April 2014