FOR THE LAST 17 YEARS, Walter Fuller has spent most of his days in his informal office in a steel shipping container that is outfitted with shelves for birding books and official reports, a desk and a couch, and is situated at the western end of Oxnard’s Arnold Road. This is the gateway to the south side of Ormond Beach, a sandy expanse well-known to surfers and birders and an astonishing variety of coastal wildlife, but little-known to the outside world.
Fuller loves birds and animals of all sorts, and once considered a career in the Forest Service, but in his maturity he has found his own kind of peace as the informal gatekeeper and watchman for the area, protecting both the cars of visitors who park in the lot, and the birds — including two endangered species — who live out in the dunes nearby.
“I’m the gatekeeper at one spot, and the property caretaker for the area, and it’s a big property!” he laughs, referring to the roughly two-mile stretch of white sand and dunes between Port Hueneme to the north and the Naval Base Ventura County, Point Mugu, to the south.
“It’s like I’m taking it on as my responsibility. When I’m out on the beach, I’m watching for injured birds or dead birds; and when the gate’s open I’m watching the parking lot, and if I see any break-ins I notify the appropriate authorities.”
According to Al Sanders, who has been working to protect endangered species such as the least tern at Ormond for decades, Fuller’s presence — however unofficial his role — has greatly helped provide both access to the public and protection for the birds.
“Before Walter got involved, you could hardly go down and park at the end of Arnold Road without getting your car broken into,” Sanders said. “And there were a lot of people taking unleashed dogs out on to the beach, which can be very destructive to birds that nest in the sand. Walter’s presence down there has been really important.”
Fuller said that when the surf is up, the parking lot at the end of Arnold Road is packed, and adds that every year, bird enthusiasts by the hundreds — from as far away as Russia and Israel — visit Ormond Beach in hopes of seeing rare and migrating birds passing through on the so-called Pacific Flyway.
It’s easy to see why: On a recent visit with Fuller and Chris Kahler, who conducts tours of the area for VC Shorebirds, this reporter glimpsed not just the endangered snowy plovers, but also far more dazzling birds, including a rare sandpiper species and an enormous great blue heron roosting in a tree, as well as ospreys, egrets, kestrels, kites, and even a pair of rare and spectacular white tundra swans stopping by on their way south from Alaska.
Biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have documented more than 200 bird species in the area, the most variety in the county, as well as rare and threatened plant species and an endangered estuary fish, the tidewater goby.
According to Chris Williamson, director of planning for the city of Oxnard, the city wants to encourage the public to visit Ormond Beach, despite the remnants of heavy industry from Oxnard’s past that still tower over the dunes just a few hundred feet behind the beach. The two unavoidable eyesores are the GenOn power plant, which is operational but often shut down, and the massive remains of the abandoned Halaco scrap metal plant, which is now an EPA-designated toxic waste site.
“We are heading in the direction of making Ormond Beach more accessible and better-known to the public,” he said. “We are currently looking at ways to make it easier to access, and if you look at the history, we’ve been implying that we’re going this way for the last 45 years.”
amid native vegetation at Ormond.
Halaco — the mess that won’t go away
The biggest scar on Ormond Beach is the 700,000-cubic-yard slag heap of toxic waste left behind by a company named Halaco. The company built the plant on the remains of an Oxnard city dump near Ormond Beach in l965. Although complaints and litigation that followed the waste metal company date back to its handling of radioactive thorium in its early days in Gardena in l961, Oxnard welcomed its magnesium smelting plant to the beach.
Shirley Godwin, an Oxnard resident who, with her husband, Larry, has been working to restore Ormond Beach’s beauty and ecological health since the l990s, said that when the plant was approved in l965, representatives from the local chamber of commerce came to the ground-breaking, and touted the plant as offering a bright future for the city.
“Oxnard was never a beach community,” she said. “It was a farming town that grew towards the ocean. For decades, the west side of Oxnard was considered a low-cost dumping ground.”
Halaco was allowed to dump its wastes directly into a city drain. In 1970, a state lab found that fish were killed within 10 minutes of exposure to Halaco wastes. Decades of disputes with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the California Department of Health Services, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies followed, until the company was sued by the District Attorney of Ventura County, settled a claim for $150,000, and filed for bankruptcy in 2002.
In 2007, the EPA designated the slag heap a toxic waste Superfund site, and has been studying it intensively ever since. Wayne Praskins, who heads the project for the EPA, said that at the end of the month the agency will publish results of a groundwater survey. Praskins said the shallow groundwater immediately beneath the surface is not used for either drinking or irrigation, but said it is possible that a deeper aquifer has been contaminated. Praskins stated that testing has confirmed that the waste metals are not harmful to people visiting the beach, although touching the remains of the slag heap could be dangerous.
The cleanup will take many years, if not decades, and cost “tens of millions of dollars,” he said. The agency’s hope is that some of the materials in the 30-foot high slag heap can be used in the manufacture of cement.
“The EPA is working hard to clean up the site,” Praskins said. “We have made a lot of progress in completing our testing, and in the next year or two we hope to begin the process of removal.”
The eyesore at Halaco has become a visual symbol of Oxnard, which City Councilwoman Carmen Ramirez regrets.
“Unlike Santa Monica and Carmel and other towns in California, where the coast was a place where the affluent built fabulous homes, here in Oxnard the coast has been allowed to be degraded,” said Ramirez. “At the time, the city may have had good reasons for that, but now people are asking, why does Oxnard get all the bad stuff, like power plants and EPA Superfund sites?”
An aerial view of Ormond Beach, which lies between Port Hueneme and the Naval Base Ventura County, Point Mugu.
The irony of Ormond Beach
Ormond Beach’s irony comes in industrial-strength monstrosities, with smokestacks and pollutants. It’s the largest and most important open space wetlands project in Southern California because the industry the city allowed to be built near the beach discouraged housing development close by.
“The city was marketing itself as a place for coastal industry, and then, over time, you might say a more healthy self-esteem kicked in, and Oxnard started to see Ormond as a beautiful beach with great wetlands, and not a place for Halaco and power plants,” said Janet Bridgers, who has directed three documentaries about Ormond.
“You wouldn’t believe the number of stupid ideas that have been proposed for that area,” said Peter Brand, with the California Conservancy, the state agency working to restore the 1,500-acre area.
Suggestions have included a coal-slurry pipeline from Utah, a senior citizens marina and a space-theme amusement park.
With the industry, the poverty of South Oxnard and the lack of oversight, in the l980s, Ormond Beach became a popular spot for go-cart racers, off-road vehicle adventuring, and even motorcycle racing. The low plants that capture the wind-blown sand were destroyed, and without their living backstops, the dunes themselves vanished and the endangered snowy plovers and least terns were driven away. As late as 2002, according to Godwin, Southern California Edison considered a plan by Occidental Petroleum for an off-shore liquid natural gas plant, to be serviced by a port built at Ormond Beach.
“I hate to say that all the negative publicity helped,” said the activist, “but in late 2002, with this almost sci-fi concept for a floating liquid natural gas terminal, people began to wake up to the importance of this area.”
Walter Fuller, bird-lover who works as a janitor and security guard, has dedicated the last 17 years of his life to protecting the coastal wetland in Oxnard. • Matthew Hill Photography, ©2012
Community opposition nixed the liquid natural gas plant, and Edison eventually sold 264 acres to the California Coastal Conservancy. In a related deal for city and water district land, 276 acres were bought and given to the land by The Nature Conservancy, for a total of 540 acres, costing about $22 million, Brand said.
The agency wants to restore the wetlands behind the protected dunes, hoping that the near-impossibility of conventional development in an area regulated as coastal land, as a toxic waste site, and as wetland, will push landowners to sell.
Brand expects that in time the power plant will “go away,” and trusts that the EPA will clean up the Halaco toxic waste dump. The Conservancy would like to buy more land, 340 acres of former wetlands from Southland Sod, which grows lawn grass on huge expanses of the Oxnard plain.
The idea of the restoration is to convert the patchwork of industry and open land behind Ormond Beach back to an estuary.
Countless obstacles remain. The first is that Southland Sod doesn’t want to sell.
“The economics have to work,” said Jurgen Gramckow, president of the company. “The Coastal Conservancy and the many supporters of the wetlands say, well, you’ve got farmland out there, you should sell it for a farmland price. But that would mean I have to pick up and move, and that’s the core of my operation, that’s my warehousing, that’s my shipping center, that’s my offices. It’s like someone knocking on your door and offering to buy your house at its appraised value. But what if you like living at your house and don’t want to move? In that case, I think the buyers have to offer an incentive.”
Hoping to find a way around this road block, Brand and the Ormond Beach Task Force, which includes community activists, agency representatives, scientific observers and local politicians, this month opened the discussion to a first-class ecotourism center idea.
“What we have begun exploring, with the encouragement of several City Council members, is the concept of a visitor serving commercial uses [site],” said Brand, “a development that is much more open to public use and with more open space to buffer the wetlands.”
Based on a scientific analysis by the Pacific Institute, the Conservancy calls for restoring the wetlands behind the
beach not just for its beauty, but because, as global warming makes the seas rise, the wetlands will move inland with every storm surge, and Ormond Beach may be the last place on the Southern California coast where it is possible to prepare for that eventuality.
Planner Williamson points out that already, during big storms, the Agromin mulch plant, which is about 500 yards inland from the end of Arnold Road, is under water.
“I think sea-level rise is becoming part of this conversation,” said City Councilwoman Ramirez. “I certainly hope so. It’s observable and it’s checkable, and if the Navy base next door is taking sea-level rise seriously, and considers it a threat, how can a city like Oxnard deny it? It’s just good planning not to put things like power plants and water treatment plants on the coast where they may be expensive or impossible to save from sea-level rise.”
Chris Kahler, the biologist who runs the VC Shorebirds nonprofit, and Walter Fuller, security guard at Ormond, look over images of native birds of the wetland.
The ecology and the Navy
A map of Ormond Beach shows a checkerboard of industry, agriculture, degraded and filled-in wetlands, along with two elite duck hunting clubs. But just over the fence to the south is the Point Mugu Navy base, which Martin Ruane, a biologist, says has been relatively unchanged since the Navy built an airfield nearby during World War II. It’s far more open and better protected.
Not only does the Navy agree that sea-level rise must be planned for, but it has a team of 24 scientists at work on conservation on its bases.
At Point Mugu last year, the Navy documented nearly 700 successful nestings built by the endangered least terns, while Ormond Beach biologists – despite a great deal of effort by volunteers such as Walter Fuller and Al Sanders – documented just one successful nesting this year.
The Navy team has won more than one national award for their conservation efforts, which include watching the nesting area to make sure that particular gulls or ravens or other predators don’t begin to systematically target the nest sites. If necessary, Ruane said, they will keep watch at night, using night-vision technology, to protect the nests.
“There might be a hundred gulls doing absolutely nothing in front of a colony of least tern nests, and then one gull decides to remove a tern chick,” said Ruane. “We’re watching for the one problematic individual that will basically spend the whole day gobbling up chicks. When it gets beyond a natural predation level to where it’ll impact the whole nesting season, then we will step in and try to remove that predator.”
Next door at Ormond, Sean Anderson, an ecologist at California State University, Channel Islands, who has been monitoring the beach with students for years, argues that, in terms of plant diversity, insect productivity and shorebird populations, Ormond Beach is doing fairly well, as are comparable sites along the coast. The problem, he said, is that the natural flow of water and of species between the beach and the interior wetland area has been altered or destroyed.
An American kestrel takes flight at Ormond.
• Matthew Hill Photography, ©2012
“We have what amounts to a broken mirror at Ormond,” he said. “The connectivity that links the lagoon to the upland marsh to the dune communities is all twisted and tweaked up.”
The Navy’s conservation success next door inspired Michael Kellett, who specializes in protecting threatened areas by designating them as national parks, monuments or other protected lands.
“There’s a lot of concern at the naval base about encroaching development,” he said, on the phone from Massachusetts. “The Navy is actually very interested in some kind of way of protecting the entire area, a partnership that would ensure that the land at the base would remain protected and become part of a partnership with the National Park Service.”
Kellett hopes to build community support for such a national designation, which would require an act of Congress but could begin with a relatively inexpensive study by the Department of the Interior if substantial community support for such a measure can be shown.
Back at the beach, Fuller too is waiting, hoping that a nonprofit proposed by his friend Kahler can find a little money to support his gatekeeping efforts. Gramckow of Southland Sod is willing to sell his land for ecological restoration, but is waiting for a buyer willing to pay his price. The California Conservancy is working with local activists to find a way to meet his price, but still hoping for another vote of support from the Oxnard City Council, which has to commit to an ecological solution to the area.
While discussing these issues with this reporter, Walter Fuller sees the two tundra swans flying by above, pure white against a clear blue sky.
“This is your lucky day!” says Fuller, and laughs. Broken or not, the mirror of Ormond Beach still reflects in its edgy way the beauty of the sea, the sky, the sand and all its wild and heedless inhabitants.