On Earth Day, the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve in West Los Angeles is typically bustling with over 100 volunteers working on restoration projects as part of an annual event held by the Friends of Ballona Wetlands (FBW) organization. However, on Earth Day this week, the wetlands sat devoid of human activity as people continued to stay home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The cancellation of events such as this is just one of the ways that FBW and other environmental organizations in the L.A. area are being impacted by the pandemic.
According to Scott Culbertson, the executive director of FBW, the organization has also halted all their educational programs and regular trash cleanups along Ballona Creek, which normally take place several times a month. While the organization is working to shift their educational work to an online format, there is no adequate solution for the organized creek cleanups. Culbertson worries about how much trash will build up and where it will end up.
“With the recent rains there’s a lot of trash that now we’re not able to get to and sadly that’s going to find its way into the ocean,” Culbertson said.
Heal the Bay, another L.A.-based organization has also suspended their cleanup projects, which regularly took place on L.A. beaches. Marslaidh Ryan, the aquarium director for Heal the Bay, said that although outdoor cleanup efforts are an important part of what the organization does, she is more concerned about the impact of the pandemic on their educational programs and community outreach efforts. According to Ryan, Heal the Bay normally hosts large groups of students every day at their aquarium in Santa Monica—field trips which have been canceled in the wake of the closures due to the pandemic.
Like FBW, Heal the Bay is creating online educational platforms to continue to provide students with accessible ways to learn about marine wildlife, conservation and restoration.
“I think it is really crucial to try to develop [an online curriculum] right now, especially for schools in the area that most likely won’t open again for the rest of the school year,” Ryan said. “We are really trying to avoid a huge loss of important information in the science realm.”
Ryan said she is excited about the potential of the new online resources, and described that they are being designed with Heal the Bay's mission of environmental advocacy in mind.
“We’re making sure that Heal the Bay’s primary goals and advocacy work are being woven into the curriculum. So not only will the kids be learning about science and animals, but they’ll also feel empowered to go out and do something," said Ryan.
However, she also recognizes that online platforms will not be able to fully replace the immersive and interactive experience of visiting the aquarium in person. Additionally, the closure of the aquarium and cancellation of field trips means less revenue for the organization.
“We’re a small non-profit organization and we rely heavily on private donations and grants, but the cost of field trips and admission tickets to the aquarium [are] really what keeps us afloat,” Ryan said.
Heather Burdick, director of marine operations and executive assistant at The Bay Foundation, is also concerned about the effects of the pandemic on future funding of environmental organizations.
“Since a lot of funding needs to be put into other areas right now,” Burdick said. “How is that going to affect funding for restoration projects and protecting our coasts?”
Furthermore, current projects have been put on hold due to the pandemic. One specific project Burdick expressed concern about is sea urchin removal efforts. Sea urchin populations have grown to dangerous levels along the California coast in recent years with devastating effects on kelp forests.
“If we leave them too long, they’ll start crawling back to areas we’ve already worked, so we’re trying to defend those fronts until we can get our teams back out there,” Burdick said.
Chris Enyart works as the watershed programs project manager for The Bay Foundation and is also concerned about the limits the pandemic places on the organization's operations.
“This is usually a period when we would have a lot of field work, environmental monitoring and habitat restoration,” Enyart said. “A lot of that is community based, which is obviously a big issue due to social distancing and the virus.”
Enyart said the pandemic has forced them to reprioritize and focus on doing what they can within the limitations of the current circumstances.
Eric Strauss, the president’s professor of biology at LMU who serves as the executive director of the Center for Urban Resilience, says that in the absence of field work he has shifted focus to writing reports.
“We’re doing a lot of writing,” Strauss said. “Professors who are usually behind getting their work done because they want to be in the field with students are now kind of forced to get it all finished.”
Strauss said that the effects of the pandemic have transformed the way his organization works. Staff now only meet via Zoom and, like other environmental organizations, they are no longer able to do field work to the same extent. However, he said that there have been upsides to being forced to adapt to this new way of working and he is hopeful about the potential for change that could come from this pandemic.
“I think the most important positive impact will be increased human awareness,” Strauss said. “The first Earth Day 50 years ago was a period when crazy things were happening. After the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, we came together as a nation to say that it was unacceptable to treat the earth this badly, so the Environmental Protection Agency was established.”
Strauss says that it will require a drastic change in human behavior to combat the effects of climate change and hopes that this pandemic will serve as a catalyst for such action.
“We can be better to the Earth and the Earth can be better to us,” Strauss said. “This is an opportunity to transform toxic behavior into healing behavior. We’re going to need to think more sharply on our patterns of consumption, think more intensively about our food chains and use our water more sparingly.”
Looking forward to the future, Strauss sees the Center for Urban Resilience playing a role in implementing some of these changes.
“I think we have a great opportunity for education, public awareness and to serve as consultants to philanthropists and business,” Strauss said. “We would love to co-venture and help people make those appropriate changes and to discover and help generate the science that is necessary to understand what those changes are.”