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Expo Line Landscaping Lunacy

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The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is on the verge of making a decision that would be as ridiculous as The Nature Conservancy choosing a corporate fleet of Hummers. The MTA has been remarkably progressive in installing light-rail lines throughout the region, but if non-native landscaping is installed along phase two of the Expo Line, the MTA will gravely undermine its environmental credibility and will torpedo what could have been a boon to the Los Angeles environment. It is essential that phase two of the Expo Line be landscaped solely with California native plants. The tragedy is that many people, including those at the MTA, seem to think that native landscaping is a small cosmetic issue. It is not. Like recycling, landscaping with native plants is at the heart of sustainable living and nature conservation.

The reasons for landscaping with California natives are many: They use one-seventh the water of most non-natives, need no soil amendments or fertilizers (decreasing nitrogen run-off into Santa Monica Bay) and support our ecosystems due to the fact that 90 percent of all insect species can eat only native plants. Insects are essential to people's well being because insects are pollinators, food for other insects and animals, population regulators of other organisms, and decomposers of organic waste. As Edward O. Wilson, the eminent Harvard biologist, has observed, "Insects are the little things that run the world."

Add stunning beauty and exuberant masses of flowers to these conservation credentials and you have some of the reasons for landscaping with California native plants. Winter offers blossoms of California lilac. Spring, purple whorls of sage. Summer, white dollops of toyon. Autumn, coral trumpets of California fuchsia. These are just a few of the more than 6,000 species, sub-species and varieties of California native plants.

The seemingly oblivious attitude of the MTA, Expo Authority and landscape architects hired by the firm building the Expo Line would be laughable if the issue were not so serious. This landscaping will be with us for decades. We can choose a native plant palette in recognition of the fact that drought is normal for California, transportation and treatment of water are nearly 20 percent of the State's energy usage, and many pollinator and bird populations are only 10 to 40 percent of what they were 40 years ago. Or we can choose a non-native plant palette that is a head-in-the-sand response to pressing water, energy and ecosystem issues.

Along phase one of the Expo Line, the MTA installed non-native lawn and ginkgo trees along the parkways and Mexican fan palms at the stations. Never mind that the Mexican fan palm is listed as invasive (the botanical equivalent of vermin) by the California Invasive Plant Council. Never mind that the L.A. Department of Water and Power encourages citizens to rip out their lawns, or that native bunch grasses and Santa Cruz Island Ironwood trees could have been substituted to create the same overall aesthetic for much less water. Furthermore, bunch grasses do not need mowing, which saves money on the cost of maintenance and machinery.

What, exactly, is proposed for phase two? More ginkgo trees and Mexican fan palms, plus color-themed landscaping that that uses less than 20 percent native species and is as forward-looking as using carrier pigeons for mass communication. The stubborn adherence to an inappropriate plant palette is "justified" by statements that deny an obvious reality: "Native plants are fragile and not as durable as non-natives" (though natives survive in the wild without irrigation). "Native plants are not appropriate for landscaping" (though counter-examples are many: U.C. Irvine and U.C. Riverside have installed native landscapes, as has Sierra Madre Elementary School through funds from the San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District. In addition, hundreds of native landscapes have been featured on the Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden Tour). "Native plants won't work in many of the conditions on the West Side" (though the West Side was covered with native vegetation before the city came along). This is the reality: our Southern California native plants have evolved over millions of years to be ideally adapted to thrive in the local environment.

It seems that the design division of Marina Landscape, the firm hired by the company building the Expo Line, does not typically work with natives and that their plant suppliers don't primarily grow natives. However, the construction division of Marina Landscape has done native restoration projects. Given that the Urban Design Committee -- 14 members representing local communities and stakeholders, members appointed by the Expo Board of Directors -- requested in December 2011 an all-native design for phase two, wouldn't it make sense to hand off the project to the Marina division with native landscaping experience?

Now is the time to make the paradigm shift. We do not have enough water to spend on plants that feed neither people nor wildlife and contribute precious little to ecosystem health. The foot-dragging on the design of an all native landscape will favor the shameful status quo because, when the plan is needed in late summer 2012, there will be insufficient time to create a better, forward-looking plan. It is time that landscape architects adapt to the local environment. There are plenty of landscape architects and suppliers that use natives, and if the MTA requires natives, then it will support sustainable practices and truly "green" companies.

The MTA has a responsibility to the public to model appropriate practices. Landscaping is about beauty as well as decreasing our water and energy usage, promoting an authentic landscape for L.A. and increasing habitat. And the creation of habitat is not just about saving insects and other animals for their own good. Birds, for example, contribute billions-of-dollars-worth of ecosystem services to California each year, from preying on agricultural pests to reforestation to watershed protection. The creation of habitat is about saving species for our own good. We need them, and they need us to do the right thing.

We need native plants along all our light-rail transportation parkways and stations, with informational signage at the stations about the benefits that native plants provide. This would be a great way to educate the public about forward-looking solutions to energy, water and ecosystem issues.

To all members of the MTA and Expo Authority: Don't repeat the landscaping mistakes of phase one of the Expo Line. We have to do better. Here in Los Angeles, we should model the kind of urban and suburban practices that are needed planet-wide.

For more information and to sign the petition in favor of native plants, go to www.lanative.org