By Aida Ashouri

A hundred years ago, a sign was erected in Hollywood to advertise a new housing development. “Hollywoodland” lay before then-empty hills that had just begun to be graded for housing development in what we now know as the Hollywood Hills. Since then, over 95% of the wildlands in Los Angeles have been destroyed – any remaining wildlands can now be considered as valuable as gold.

Griffith Park, one of the last remaining bastions of open space where native wildlife can thrive, is one of these remaining spaces. The Park has been home to more than 200 bird species and 70 nesting bird species. Native plant species of grave conservation concern also call the Park their home, including the Humboldt Lily and Catalina Mariposa-Lily. The only Bigberry Manzanita left in the eastern Santa Monica Mountain occurs at the higher ridges in the Park, from Mt. Hollywood to Mt. Lee, as well as a small population of Parry’s Cholla, a locally-rare native cactus, found near the old Zoo site. Additionally, the Park is home to the Nevin’s Barberry, one of the rarest plants in the U.S.

Such a rich ecosystem is also fragile, and currently under threat. The Los Angeles Zoo seeks to expand its grounds greatly. Within its gated confines in Griffith Park, the Zoo has a “Vision Plan” to create a multi-entertainment venue, add exhibits, add a large visitor center on the ridgeline above the Zoo, and blast the ridgeline to create an artificial canyon to make a rock wall, among other edifices. There was sparse public outreach regarding the plan, but much public outcry. There were at least 300 public comments on the council file against the expansion. Nevertheless, the City Council passed the Environment Impact Report (EIR), greenlighting the Vision Plan.

Although the Zoo lies in a net-zero air quality plan for public works, the Vision Plan would contribute an exponential rise in carbon emissions as its focus is mainly to increase visitors through vehicular traffic into the Park. There are motions on the table to investigate improving public transportation within the Park, but there’s no requirement that these be established in order to allow for the Vision Plan to proceed. In addition, although Los Angeles already has a problem with high ozone levels, the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) acknowledges that the Zoo Plan would generate emissions of NOX, an O3 precursor, in excess of the regional mass daily threshold.

In addition to the construction, the Zoo plans to have nightly events that bring light, noise, and traffic to the Park. The EIR acknowledges that “[i]ndirect impacts on special-status wildlife species could also occur due to increased noise and light. These species could abandon habitats within and adjacent to areas of proposed development and move into adjacent areas in the vicinity (e.g., Griffith Park), increasing competition for available resources in those areas. This could result in indirect impacts to and the loss of additional special-status wildlife species outside of the project site, including sensitive species that may not be able to survive with increased competition.” Alarmingly, the EIR acknowledges that species may go extinct in the Park because this Plan has “the potential to result in the loss of individuals, or the reduction of existing habitat, of a state or federal listed endangered, threatened, rare, protected, or candidate species, or a Species of Special Concern.”

Even though there is a plan to destroy a hillside to create an artificial canyon, there is no analysis as to the impact of that loss on erosion, flooding, pollution, or impact on water flows within the Park. Rather, the analysis is that the water flow impact would be “minor” and that the Plan would “not increase the potential for soils to be subject to wind or water erosion.” There’s no analysis of how the new concrete and nonpermeable land affect water flows and groundwater in Griffith Park. The EIR acknowledges that the destruction of the hillside will “potentially result in loss of sensitive natural communities, species, and protected trees.” Lastly, there is little in the Plan that makes it sustainable. For example, there are no plans to reuse the dirt excavated, thus resulting in at least 3,000 diesel trucks that would be required to move the dirt out of the Park.

On its face, this Plan would be destructive to Griffith Park, and thus its wildlife The EIR itself blatantly states that species could go extinct and be under increased stress due to this plan, yet the Council passed it anyway. The Zoo leadership has admitted that the motivation for this expansion is to increase revenue and capture tourist as a result of the Olympics. But at what cost?

Aida Ashouri is an attorney with Legal Aid Foundation of LA and community advocate interested in diversity & inclusion, transportation, public health & safety, and environmental affairs