Thursday, March 1, 2012

Madrona Marsh: a Postage Stamp of Nature in Torrance

I've been posting a series of blog posts about Torrance, California, the city where I grew up.  Most of them revolve around trying to find nature, wildness, and forgotten, unmanicured spaces in this a of suburban sprawl.  Yet, I'd be remiss not to dedicate a post to Madrona Marsh, a small patch of nature right in the center of Torrance that was spared from development, and became a refuge for me as I was attending high school in the 1990s.

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When the Spanish first set foot in southern California, much of the Torrance area was a vast seasonal wetland (some of which is mapped in previous links).  Winter rains filled the lower places with water, and during the wettest years you could paddle for miles in a canoe without setting foot on dry land.  During the summer, especially during drier years, the vast series of wetlands would dry to a few pools.  Floods, droughts, earthquakes, and shifts in the Los Angeles River and its tributaries together formed a series of constantly changing wetlands.  This ecosystem, known as vernal marshland, has essentially been completely removed from the South Bay area of Los Angeles County, and Madrona Marsh is the largest intact remnant in existence  (It is billed as the last existing vernal marsh in Los Angeles County, but smaller remnants do exist, and even try to regrow from time to time).

Ironically, the reason Madrona Marsh was left undeveloped is because it was being used as an oil field.  For years the struggling willow forest was sprayed with pesticide as part of a 'weed abatement' program but it somehow survived.  Perhaps the changable nature of vernal marshland led to adaptations in the willows that helped them quickly regrow and recolonize during this period.  Later, the Friends of Madrona Marsh were formed, and in a lengthy legal battle were able to set aside the marsh as a nature preserve.

The marsh is wedged in an unlikely location - between large tracts of suburban homes and the enormous Del Amo Mall; near the huge Torrance Mobil Refinery, and nowhere near any other sizable tract of open space (the Palos Verdes Peninsula to the south still supports some parcels of intact habitat, including coastal sage scrub and a few tiny seasonal streams but not much wetland).

(above:  arroyo willow in the foreground and background almost, but not quite, obscure the city in this view.)

The preserve includes about 10 acres of marsh, as well as a sizable patch of upland 'back dune' habitat and a few small vernal pools. The upland habitat has largely been taken over by invasive annual grasses, probably in part due to disturbance associated with oil field operations.  Ongoing restoration efforts seek to bring back in some of the the vegetation native to back dune habitats, including several plants that are quite rare.  There are even some endangered fairy shrimp, including some that were (re)introduced to the area relatively recently.  At some point in high school I discovered the Marsh and spent a lot of time working on habitat restoration and organizing projects to get others out as well.  With other areas of open space so far away, this was often my only chance to experience nature (of the non-urban form), and the marsh became a bit of a refuge.  I even won some awards associated with the project.

(above: sandbar willow, one of the many native plant species that occur in Madrona Marsh.)

Because of my connection to Madrona Marsh, it is still important to me, and I often visit when I am back in Torrance.  I am happy with how the marsh has been maintained, in general, but things aren't perfect.  Perhaps most frustrating is the lack of access - the marsh is only open from 10 AM to 5 PM, Tuesday-Saturday, making it impossible to birdwatch at dawn or relax in the marsh on warm summer evenings as the fog rolls in.  During one of my visits, the marsh was closed for the entire day, due to some sort of vandalism or illegal dumping.  I find it very distressing to be locked out of the only bit of nature in Torrance and while I do not fault the staff for this, I think the City of Torrance could do a better job promoting use and access.  Perhaps some restriction on access is necessary due to the urban environment, lack of funding for maintenance/patrolling, and lack of community awareness... but the minimal hours are so restrictive that they probably lead the community to value the marsh less.  In a city at least 3 times the population of Burlington, with literally no other nature preserve nearby, there isn't enough community support and funding to keep a marsh open until dusk?  Burlington has several preserves of this size or larger, with no rod iron fences around them.

In addition, the nature center is huge.  It's nice, and I'm glad it exists, but when I was in high school there was a small trailer full of dusty animal skins and plant samples that served the marsh just fine.  Without enough resources to even keep the marsh open during daylight hours, is it necessary to maintain and staff such a huge building?  Now that it's built, we might as well use it, but I can't help but think that the money could have spent on trails, staff, and restoration in the actual marsh instead.  Torrance already has plenty of buildings, and if you want to stay inside, you might as well just go to the mall.

(above: bullrush growing in the marsh)

Yet the marsh is still here, and people do care about it, so overall it is very much an asset to the community.  If you end up in Torrance for any reason, go check it out.  It's one of only two places in Torrance (the other being my parents' house) I actually look forward to visiting.  Well... maybe In N Out Burger also, but that isn't endemic to Torrance.

Last month I visited Madrona Marsh and used iNaturalist to document some plant occurrences.  I only recorded 12 plant species (and one bird species) but as my time there was limited and it was a dry time of year, this is only a small percentage of the number of native and naturalized plant species growing in the preserve.

If you live in Torrance, why not email the mayor to ask for increased Marsh access?  Your email will probably be a bit more tactful than the one I just sent when I realized access had been decreased yet again.  Yuck.


  1. Hello Charlie, happily, I just stumbled onto your blog, and this post in particular. Will go back and read the other posts.

    Grew up in Torrance, at least a couple of decades before you. My family moved there in 1963, into a tract of homes built at the bottom of (dry) Lake Walteria... near PCH and Anza. For the first year or two, there was still a marsh remnant along PCH just east of South High. We'd go there to play and check out the frogs and such. Some of the older kids even built Tom Sawyer-style rafts, and tree houses in some (obviously not native) large Eucalyptus trees. From the vast tracts of homes built in a 2-3 year period could be gleaned copious quantities of wood scrap and nails. And, we weren't exactly forthcoming with disapproving parents about our destination. By the late '60s, the last swamp in that area was filled with dirt and became a large apartment complex.

    At least Madrona Marsh remains open at all. Still, if people realized the pyscho-social benefits to kids growing up otherwise deprived of nature, they'd flock there rather than the mall.

  2. Thanks so much for your stories! It's true, we are lucky the marsh is still there, it almost wasn't! I do wish I could have checked out those wetlands around Lake Walteria. There is still a big sump in the area and people have talked about doing something with it, but so far the community support doesn't seem to be strong enough to push it forward. Maybe some day...

    It must have been interesting growing up in the area during that time, but I think it would have broken my heart (even more so than seeing a bunch of PV bulldozed and old oak trees demolished around the more distant edges of LA.)

    If you're interested in water-related history of the LA area, you should also check out the LA Creek Freak blog at - it's my favorite southern California urban nature/water blog.

    1. Thanks, Charlie. Looking back, I have much more appreciation now for what we had then lost.

      Read their blog posts from time to time and now follow LA Creek Freak on Facebook. That's how I found your blog. Full circle... cool!

  3. How about the Madrona Marsh Challenge? Raise funds for a worthwhile cause?