On October 14, 2021 a small group of family, friends and dignitaries gathered at the entrance of Ballona Discovery Park for the unveiling of a bronze relief sculpture commemorating founders of the non-profit organization, Friends of Ballona Wetlands, responsible for halting development and ultimately saving the Ballona Wetlands from destruction.
Starting in Ruth Lansford’s living room back in the 1970s, this cadre of friends, professors and neighbors joined forces, persuading pro-bono lawyers, Carlyle Hall & Jo Powe (Center for Law in the Public Interest), to take their case. Together they filed a lawsuit against landowner Summa Corporation, heirs to the Howard Hughes fortune, triggering a decades long battle. The Hughes estate held Los Angeles’ last remaining major wetland habitat, 1,067 acres, all that remained of the historically designated 2,000 acres. More than 900 acres were destroyed in the 1960s with the construction of Marina del Rey.
The sculpture depicts the founding members gathering in a stylized land that encompasses the six main ecosystems of the Ballona Wetlands. Taking a closer look at the patina bronze, whimsical, yet scientifically accurate, details hidden within the piece begin to emerge – a rabbit here – ducks there in the canal – pickle weed in the marsh – Great Blue Herons flying overhead – and so on. In the background, overlooking the wetlands, quaint Playa del Rey neighborhoods perch high on the hill and the distinct cliff-side letters of Loyola Marymount University “LMU” are clearly visible below its classic bell tower.
From left to right are the Founders in bronze: Dr. Howard Towner, Professor of Biology at Loyola Marymount University, beholds a feather from the Snowy Egret; Student Willy Lansford converses with his Santa Monica College Professor of Marine Biology, Ed Tarvyd. Their chance meeting was a key link that would ultimately lead to Ballona’s designation as a California State Ecological Reserve decades later. Next them are Virginia Wilson, a neighborhood activist with a colorful personality, standing alongside her dear friend Jan Rader, The Friends’ lifelong treasurer and dedicated advisor. Working the soil with her watering can and trowel is the artist Mary Thomson, Mother of Dunes Restoration – the first Wetlands area ever to be restored. Standing tall at the center are Councilwoman Ruth Galanter and Ruth Lansford, Founder of The Friends. History would prove their alliance to be an unstoppable one, as together they took on powerful developers armed only with intelligence, good intent, truth, determination and the will of the voters. Ruth’s husband, Bill Lansford and their 2nd son Matt, volunteers in the battle, fought with a pen and camera, respectively. They are the two figures on the right patiently standing-by.
The idea for the plaque was inspired by the founding members’ children, in appreciation of their parent’s visionary environmentalism and determination to save the Ballona Wetlands for future generations.
At the grand unveiling were members of the Tarvyd family, the Two Ruths (or “Ruth Squared”, as they are affectionately called), Matt Lansford, Jan Rader’s son, Kirk Rader and son in law, David Gordon; Veronica Wilson, daughter of founder Virginia Wilson; Venice activist Tim Rudnick; Mel Nutter, an environmental leader; Marla & Dr. David Kay, serving member of the Ballona Discovery Park Partners Board who oversaw the installation of the project. They mingled with current representatives of Playa Vista, Loyola Marymount University and the Friends non-profit: Dawn Suskin, Dr. Eric Strauss, Lisa Fimiani, Scott Culbertson, Catherine and Patrick Tyrrell, Nancy and John Edwards, and Neysa Frechette.
Tongva Tribal Chairman, Robert Dorame, and Most Likely Descendant of the Gabrielino Tongva Indians of California, and his wife Jan, also joined in the celebration, along with artist Ken Bracken, who drew the original designs for renowned Chicago sculptor, Erik Blome’s bronze work. Ken and Robert walked the garden pathways to the nearby Tongva Monument, also installed in Ballona Discovery Park earlier in the year.
Read more about the Tongva Monument in our last blog post.
The connection between Loyola Marymount University and the Ballona Wetlands goes back to the founding of the Friends, when the late Dr. Howard Towner joined the original Board of the non-profit back in the late 70s. The Friends’ YouTube video, The Ballona Wetlands: Freshwater Marsh Story, shows Dr. Towner in the Wetlands in the very beginning, proving the degraded property was marshland. Thus began a 40 year battle that has resulted in most of the restorable land to be saved and designated an Ecological Reserve.
Ken Dial, Professor Emeritus, University of Montana, and LMU Alum said of the LMU professor: “Dr. Towner was not only my mentor in college but also a dear friend and inspiring professor at LMU. I grew up in the Kentwood neighborhood and spent much of my free time as a child hiking through the Ballona wetland region. I didn’t understand the vast riches of Ballona until I was schooled by Dr. Towner. Howard Towner exemplified what it means to be a “naturalist”; to harbor both a broad and deep knowledge in botany, invertebrate biology, and especially vertebrate biology (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals). He inspired me to strive for the same but, frankly, I could never match his encyclopedic mind. He loved the wetlands and hoped for its preservation and improvement, because of Howard I plan to continue that quest.” Dr. Dial recently joined the company of other LMU professors who followed Dr. Towner’s lead by joining the Friends’ Board. Longtime members Dr. James Landry, and Dr. Pippa Drennan currently serve on the Board of the Friends and like Ken, bring their years of expertise and knowledge to the LMU and Ballona communities.
Please read these other wonderful articles about the event:
Ballona Wetlands: Monument Dedicated to Friends Founders
Friends of the Ballona Wetlands Celebratory Facebook Post
The Ballona Discovery Park and viewing of the Monument are open to the public.