Crews for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power recently bulldozed hundreds of federally endangered plants in Topanga State Park, and both state and city authorities have launched investigations into DWP's actions, part of a wildfire prevention project aimed at replacing wooden power poles with steel ones, it was reported Thursday.
"In response to recent community concerns about protected plants in the construction area, the LADWP has halted construction and is working with biologists and other experts to conduct an investigation and assessment of the site," Stephanie Spicer, a spokeswoman for the city water and power agency, said late Wednesday in response to inquiries from the Los Angeles Times.
In a separate incident this year, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works apparently encased federally threatened red-legged frogs in cement while making emergency repairs to a culvert in a portion of nearby Leo Carrillo State Park, which is vulnerable to heavy debris flows because of last year's Woolsey fire.
Both events, not previously publicized by the agencies involved, have recharged debate over balancing wildfire safety and protecting fragile ecological resources following big blazes, including last year's deadly Camp and Woolsey fires, and the Tubbs fire the year before that, The Times reported.
"We're in the middle of an investigation into a lot of troubling questions," said Andrew Willis, enforcement supervisor for the California Coastal Commission, according to the newspaper. "We're contacting all appropriate state and federal wildlife agencies because they are going to want to look into them closely."
Sometime in July, DWP crews used bulldozers to construct a graded road as part of a wildfire prevention project in the Pacific Palisades highlands. The project was aimed at protecting the area -- some of the most expensive coastal real estate in Southern California -- by installing steel power poles more resistant to high winds and fire.
But in so doing, say state authorities, the crews potentially destroyed hundreds of Braunton's milk vetch plants, an endangered species whose remaining numbers have dwindled to less than 3,000 in the wild, The Times reported.
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The city utility had been alerted to the presence of the endangered plants on July 7 via an email sent by David Pluenneke, an amateur botanist and avid hiker. It thanked him for calling the issue to their attention, according to documents obtained by The Times.
Eight days later, Pluenneke visited the site and discovered that crews had removed all vegetation across several acres for a new dirt fire road, 24 feet wide. He was livid, and remains angry.
"It's hard not to think that if there had been blue whales and panda bears up there, they would have bulldozed them, too," Pluenneke said.
In its statement, the DWP said the agency needs to replace more than 200 deteriorating wooden power poles in an area stretching from Pacific Palisades to Lake Encino.
"This project will help ensure power reliability and safety, while helping reduce wildfire threats," according to DWP. "These wooden poles were installed between 1933-1955 and are no past their useful service life. Due to their locations, these poles have been identified as potential fire hazards and will be replaced with steel poles. LADWP also plans to install raptor protectors on the new steel poles in order to protect birds from incidental contact."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Parks and Recreation and the California Coastal Commission are trying to determine if any laws were broken. They are also trying to determine the extent of the damage to the overall plant population, which consists of just a dozen colonies, all in the mountains surrounding the Los Angeles Basin.