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Water and sediment flowing from Malibu Creek and Lagoon impact the waves at Surfrider, especially after winter rains. (Keegan Gibbs)

Malibu’s Epic Battle of Surfers Vs. Environmentalists

Local politics take a dramatic turn in southern California over a plan to clean up an iconic American playground

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The city council, as some restoration opponents saw it, was failing to protect Malibu’s greatest asset: Surfrider break. Malibu surfers were a notoriously territorial bunch with a long history of bullying and even threatening violence against outsiders who dared to poach their waves. To them, jeopardizing the surf was the ultimate betrayal. “[The break] is like a historical monument. It should be protected above everything. Above the lagoon itself,” Lyon told me. “They talk about the Chumash Indians and all that other crap. The historical cultural value of Malibu as a surf spot should have been protected and they did zero.”

The exchanges on the Malibu Patch site devolved into vicious sparring matches. One opponent wrote: “Stephanie [sic] Glas wants to kill animals, birds, fish, nests, plant life, in order to help the fish and ‘water flow.’” She fired back by posting detailed scientific information about the project—and then calling her adversary a liar. Despite their original intention of maintaining a civil discourse, Woods and Glas were eventually barred from commenting on Patch.

So Glas created TheRealMalibu411, where she posted the official lagoon restoration plan, the environmental impact report, photographs and court documents. Glas got more heat. One night, she and Woods were at a local restaurant when a woman screamed at them, “ ‘F— you, animal killers! Get the f— out of Malibu! Nobody wants you here!” They weren’t the only targets. In early June, a California parks department worker was approached by a pair of surfers who asked whether he was involved in the lagoon restoration. “If you are, you will be wearing a toe tag,” the surfers warned. Soon after, Suzanne Goode, one of the project managers, received a voice mail: “You’re horrible, you’re a criminal, you should be ashamed of yourself. And we’re not through with you.” The opposition went on to nickname Goode “The Wicked Witch of the Wetlands.”

Glas “feared for her safety,” according to Cece Stein, Glas’ friend and co-founder of TheRealMalibu411. To be sure, Glas was also exhausted by the round-the-clock nature of her firefighting job and the grisly traffic accidents and crime—drug deals, overdoses, gang violence—it forced her to encounter. In 2008, she was a first responder at a deadly train crash in Chatsworth; she had to look for survivors among the bodies destroyed in the blaze. Glas developed a hard edge that may have undermined her in the Malibu Lagoon debate. But there was more to her than that. The opposition, Woods said, “didn’t know she was this delicate little flower inside.”

***

Roy van de Hoek set a pair of binoculars on the table as he and his partner, Marcia Hanscom, joined me at a bustling Venice Beach restaurant on a hot morning this past July. The couple, in their 50s, propelled the legal opposition to the Malibu Lagoon cleanup. Van de Hoek, tall and willowy with a gray ponytail and beard, is a Los Angeles County parks and recreation employee, and Hanscom, whose raven hair frames a round, ruddy face and bright brown eyes, operate half a dozen nonprofit environmental organizations. Members of the original lagoon task force, they initially supported the restoration. But then Hanscom, who has a degree in communications, and van de Hoek mobilized against the task force, with Hanscom establishing a nonprofit called the Wetlands Defense Fund in 2006 and four years later filing the first of a series of lawsuits to halt the project.

Hanscom and van de Hoek said they rejected the task force’s finding that the lagoon was oxygen depleted; the birds and fish were evidence of a thriving wetlands, they said. “Chemistry devices and electronic equipment don’t give you the overall picture [of the health of the lagoon],” said van de Hoek. As they see it, they are at the forefront of wetlands science, whereas restoration advocates “have a complete misunderstanding of what kind of ecosystem this is,” Hanscom told me. The dozens of active credentialed scientists who have contributed to the restoration effort would, of course, beg to differ.

It wasn’t the first time van de Hoek had challenged environmental policy. According to news reports, after he was fired from a job with the Bureau of Land Management in 1993 over a disagreement with its wildlife-management techniques, he cut down trees and removed fences from bureau property in Central California; he was arrested and convicted in 1997 of misdemeanor vandalism, for which he received three years’ probation. In 2006, he was arrested for destroying nonnative plants and illegally entering an ecological preserve, Los Angeles’ Ballona Wetlands; the case was dismissed. In 2010, he told the Argonaut newspaper that he had surreptitiously introduced a parasitic plant to the Ballona Wetlands in order to kill nonnative flora; biologists say it is now destroying many native plants.

Hanscom and van de Hoek’s con- cerns about the lagoon restoration included the use of bulldozers at the site. “Rare and endangered wildlife and birds will be crushed,” they wrote in a letter to California Gov. Jerry Brown. “Survivors will flee the fumes and deafening clatter never to return. It’s the Malibu Massacre.” An ad they placed in a local newspaper said, “The natural habitat you’ve known as Malibu Lagoon, our very own Walden Pond...will be far less habitable.” 

To some observers, Hanscom and van de Hoek stoked the opposition for nonscientific reasons. “[Hanscom] found that there’s no money in supporting this project, but she could oppose it and get a lot of funds raised real fast,” said Glenn Hening, founder of the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit of 50,000 environmentally minded surfers. The group commissioned a 2011 report that determined the restoration would have no impact on Surfrider’s waves.

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