How LA Zoo plans can impact California’s flora and fauna
For 55 years, the Los Angeles Zoo has been a venerable but decidedly low-key attraction nestled among the hills of Griffith Park.
But officials are eyeing a controversial transformation that supporters of the transformation say would give it a competitive edge in a market dominated by powerful tourist attractions like Disneyland, Magic Mountain, Universal Studios, SeaWorld and other destinations including the zoo. from San Diego.
The $ 650 million plan is to remove nearly all of its remaining native forests to make room for renovation, which has angered some environmentalists.
The zoo’s ambitious “20-Year Vision Plan” includes upgrades to exhibits and flashy new tourist attractions, including a 60-foot-deep canyon with rock climbing and a California Yosemite lodge-style center with a view stunning views over a 25,000 square foot vineyard park.
Donors say it would attract up to 3 million visitors a year by 2040, an increase of about 72%, according to an environmental impact report of the plan.
But does the zoo have to consume 23 acres of native forest? It’s the question that divides defenders of 120 coastal holm oaks, 60 toyons, 22 California black walnut trees and federally and state-listed endangered shrub stands in proposed development areas.
Opposition led by historic preservation group Friends of Griffith Park and the California Native Plant Society has some advocates fearful that the controversy will scare back donors and hamper progress of the plan.
“We definitely had the Olympics in mind when we came up with this plan,” said Denise Verret, director and CEO of the zoo. “What are we going to do to attract international travelers to the zoo as a must see? “
“We are not going to build in a vacuum without taking into account the undeveloped area of our zoo,” she said. “At this point, this plan is what we envision. “
It’s a way to “put the LA Zoo at the top of the lists of the best zoos in the country,” she added. “But it will take an investment.”
Now, just weeks before the plan is passed by the Los Angeles City Council’s Arts, Parks, Health, Education and Neighborhoods Committee, critics are stepping up their efforts to promote a compromise to smaller scale. They say it would spare the forests that biologists say are home to the entire Los Angeles hawk and owl community, as well as other state species of concern, including the Southern California legless lizard.
“The zoo’s plan refers to its native forests as ‘underutilized and underdeveloped areas’,” said Gerry Hans, president of the nonprofit Friends of Griffith Park. “We categorically disagree with this statement from a conservation and biodiversity perspective. “
He also argues that the plan’s “amusement park-style approach” fails by reserving only 35% of unmanaged natural space for conversion to animal care purposes.
The plan may not be worth the financial risk, he added, at a time when the zoo, which is owned and operated by the city of Los Angeles, is counting on $ 11.6 million from the city’s general fund. to stay within its fiscal budget of approximately $ 25 million. for 2021-22.
Historians and zoo consultants, however, are not surprised by the zoo’s proposal.
Nigel Rothfels, a historian at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, said his basic goals are “absolutely in tune with the history of zoos, which have always been meant for humans and not animals.” They exist because people like to go.
Behind the scenes, “large-scale municipal zoos in the United States and around the world have always been places of tension,” he said. “This is because of the competing agendas embedded in it – education, science, conservation and recreation – and a constant desire to want to do things better. “
“Would the LA Zoo be better with climbing walls and a vineyard?” He asked. “It remains to be seen whether tourists would say, ‘Wow. LA did a really good job with that!'”
Alan Sironen, owner and general manager of Zoo Consultants International, suggested the plan was a good bet for the city. “Zoos in big cities need to look at who they are competing against and the expectations of the international visitor,” he said. “Families from all over the world to Los Angeles during the 2028 Olympics are going to be looking for cool things to do.”
About 89% of the zoo’s annual visitors are Los Angeles County residents, and the remaining 11% are tourists, zoo officials said.
Officials hope to raise money for the master plan through grants and donations collected by the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn., The zoo’s private non-profit support group, and possibly a bond issue.
If approved by Los Angeles City Council, construction would take place in seven phases starting next year. The most dramatic improvements, along with the development of more restaurants, classrooms and rental spaces for family and corporate events, could be completed within 10 years, officials said.
They include a 2,000-space parking structure; a redesigned main entrance; a 31,800-square-foot thatched-roof African visitor center overlooking a sprawling giraffe complex and a 60-foot-deep “Condor Canyon”, which would require blasting and excavation to bedrock.
Also, on a fast lane is the proposed California Visitor Center area at the heart of the zoo, which would add up to 22,400 square feet of dining facilities, an expanded space for exhibits on California wildlife – black bears, grizzly bears. , bighorn sheep, antelopes, wolves and pumas – and a funicular connected to an aerial tram.
The zoo, which has been accredited by Assn. zoos and aquariums for 27 years, is currently home to more than 1,100 mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles representing 250 species. The plan would add sparkle to the zoo’s conservation accomplishments by helping to bring critically endangered species such as the California condor and the southern California yellow-legged mountain frog from the brink. .
Critics, however, denounce the scale of the proposal and say it contradicts a new “strategic conservation plan” announced by the zoo in July.
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“The zoo plan is another attempt to squeeze more money out of Griffith Park, an LA landmark, cultural and historical landmark,” said Clare Darden, board member of the Griffith J. Griffith Charitable Trust. “There is no need for another amusement park in LA, but there is an urgent need to preserve its increasingly rare native ecosystems.”
The compromise proposal backed by Friends of Griffith Park calls for reducing the zoo’s proposed footprint by eliminating the development of Condor Canyon, the project areas in Africa and California, the vineyards and the cable car.
Zoo officials say the compromise would not generate as much revenue as its proposed expansion and may not be able to support the facility’s operations and overall financial success as a destination.
Los Angeles City Council member Nithya Raman, whose district includes Griffith Park, was unavailable for comment. But Stella Stahl, her spokesperson, said: “We agree that the zoo needs investment and updating. We have questions about the magnitude of the impact on Griffith Park and the natural habitat we are working with the zoo for. “
Over the decades Griffith Park has become home to many popular attractions including Griffith Park Observatory, Greek Theater, Autry Museum of the West, Los Angeles Zoo, golf courses, boardwalks, pony and train, tennis courts, picnic areas and concessions.
Yet much of the 4,500-acre park remains untamed, with mountain ranges up to 1,820 feet. The deer roamed the heights. Bobcats and a puma known as the P-22 roam its chaparral-covered slopes and plunging canyons. Cooper’s falcons, peregrine falcons, and California spotted owls roost in tree branches in and around the zoo.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife warned that the zoo’s 20-year plan “should restore, at a minimum, an equivalent area of impacted oak forests in approximately the same composition and orientation as the project impacts.”
But Travis Longcore, scientific director of the Urban Wildlands Group, said the strategy would be insufficient. “Mitigation plantations,” he said, “never include understory species associated with an intact oak forest.”
Resolutions to such disagreements cannot come soon enough for Verret.
“Simply completing Phase 1 – a new main entrance and the California Visitor Center – would be a great developmental achievement,” she said. “It would whet the city’s appetite for more to come.”