Loss of Pierce College Farmland

IT is startling and heartbreaking, a sign of callousness and backwardness, that at this late date, on the cusp of the 21st century, people would consider commercial development of 240 open acres – the size of the Pierce College Farm and Nature Center – in the midst of an American metropolis.
Those who have the authority and the audacity to destroy the Pierce College farmland behave as though they have been living on another planet. These individuals appear to be unaware that urban congestion and traffic jams exist, are undesirable and are worsened by commercial development of open space. They also seem to be ignorant of concepts such as “community resource” and “quality of life,” which the existence of the Pierce College land represents.
Today, the only legal way to protect open land from development or disturbance is to discover an endangered plant or animal species on the property. Laws have been passed to keep loggers from forests where age-old redwoods or spotted owls live, to keep vehicles off stretches of the Mojave Desert where desert tortoises reside and to keep sunbathers and volleyball players away from a patch of beach at Marina del Rey where the least tern, an indigenous shore bird, builds its nest.
Unfortunately, the only living creatures threatened by the development of Pierce College land are the people of Los Angeles. We are not physically threatened, but there is an intangible part of this community – call it our soul – that will be significantly diminished if the open space at Pierce College is transformed into a golf course, high-tech center or some other commercial enterprise.
Imagine a group of people living on a remote island who have never had contact with modern civilization. Suddenly a group of developers descend on the island and start building a resort and a golf course. How aghast we would be. How dare those greedy developers destroy the islanders’ world!
Now imagine a group of people who live and work in the vicinity of Pierce College, that island of bucolic serenity in an ocean of urban frenzy. These folks have come to take the pristine, undeveloped acreage of the college for granted. It is an inextricable part of their lives, a means of psychic sustenance. Then one day bulldozers arrive, changing the world of the Pierce College islanders forever.
Disrupting the lives of those who live here and recklessly tampering with the local environment are traditions that date back more than two centuries to the moment when the first Europeans, led by Gaspar de Portola, set eyes on the San Fernando Valley in 1769.
The Indians who lived here – if they somehow managed to survive the diseases brought over from Europe – quickly saw their world turned upside down. The Indians could not possibly hope to understand the outlook or grasp the system of values of the European explorers and colonizers. Whereas the Indians lived in harmony with nature, the Europeans mindlessly exploited it.
By 1800, the Indians had become vaqueros (ranch hands) for their Spanish patrons. Thousands of ancient oak and walnut trees from which the Indians had drawn their sustenance were cut down. Sheep and goats were imported from Spain to graze the Valley and soon grew into enormous herds, numbering tens of thousands of animals. Later in the 1800s, it was the fate of these animals to perish in a severe drought but, of course, there was no way of bringing back the trees or of returning the Indians to their former life among the oaks.
A golf course at Pierce College would be another ecological disaster waiting to happen. Severe droughts visit this part of the world every decade or so. Woodland Hills annually records the hottest summer temperatures in Los Angeles and, with water restrictions in place during the next drought, it is easy to see the planned golf course turning brown. The deader the golf course gets, the more we will remember the land as it was before, but there will be no way of bringing it back.
Since Pierce College is an institution of learning, the farmland and nature center must be used for instructional purposes. Yet the outstanding lesson to be learned from a golf course or other commercial development at the college would be a lesson of cynicism, that it is fine to callously disregard the natural environment and the community’s wishes in pursuit of your goals.
The Los Angeles Community College District has tried to convince us that commercial development of Pierce College land is the only way to save the college, that there is no other way of generating $800,000 a year – the sum annually required, in addition to regular revenues, to keep the college solvent.
Yet the designation of open space development as a means of raising money for the college is merely consistent with a corrupt system of values that holds as its core concept that all things, including community assets, are for sale.
Unsurprisingly, our local politicians have long behaved as if all things, including and especially themselves, are for sale. Politicians are reluctant to protest land development of any kind because they rely on developers to finance their election campaigns and would not want to alienate this group.
Not a single local politician has been willing to offer anything more than lip service, if even that, as a protest against the development of Pierce College land, despite the fact that the vast majority of Valley residents oppose such development.
If Pierce College land is utilized for commercial development, it could set a dangerous precedent. What’s next? Resorts in the open spaces of the Santa Monica Mountains? Condominiums in Griffith Park?
Perhaps the only way to stop this land grab is to form a group – call it the Garden Party – whose express purpose will be to stop urban development of open space. This party will advocate the planting of oak trees, as well as native plants and flowers, in every open space and vacant lot. I do not know of anyone who would not join such a party, except for developers and the politicians they control.
Let’s give businesses and individuals the opportunity to sponsor the planting of oak trees at a cost of $1,000 per tree. The planting of 10,000 trees would result in an endowment of $10 million, enough to generate $800,000 in annual interest. Since there are 240 acres of vacant land at Pierce, we would only have to plant 42 trees per acre for this oak tree project to become a reality.
We could make Pierce College an international center for study of the oak, at least 50 species of which are native to Mediterranean climates like our own. That would be a learning experience for the college, the community and the world that would be second to none.
How we would celebrate the wisdom of the Community College Board of Trustees for instituting such a plan!
Golf courses and high-tech centers – which will never be of interest to the common man – will come and go. But a grove of 10,000 oaks and the community of people who will long to study in their shade and live in their midst will endure for years to come.
A protest rally is planned for the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees meeting Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. at Valley College in North Hollywood. To protect Pierce College land from commercial development, write to Pierce Endowment/CCF, California Community Foundation, 606 S. Olive St., Suite 2400, Los Angeles, CA 90014.

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