Originally the El Segundo Sand Dunes covered an area of about 36 square miles. However, housing and other development, which now plaster the coastline, have reduced the sand-dune habitat to a mere 245 acres. Two of these acres are on refinery grounds owned by Standard Oil of California. In 1975 a couple of amateur lepidopterists, Jeannine Oppewall, a writer-researcher for designer Charles Eames, and Dr. John Emmel, a physician and coauthor of The Butterflies of Southern California, collected adult Blues on the site. Oppewall suggested to Standard Oil that the company fence the two acres as a butterfly sanctuary, and the company gladly did so, at a cost of $4,000.
The adjacent 243 acres, by far the more important habitat, now belong to the airport, and turning the acreage into a sanctuary is not exactly what its officials have had in mind. In 1960, when jet noise began to irritate many home owners in the dunes, the airport started acquiring property. All told, it spent $44 million to buy up the land and raze more than 200 houses.
After Chicago's O'Hare, Los Angeles International Airport is the busiest in the world, handling 27 million passengers a year. Before 1990 the airport hopes to handle 40 million passengers annually. Even so, the 243 acres of sand dunes are not critical to airport expansion; in fact, the airport is thinking of turning most of the area into a mass recreation complex with a golf course as the set piece. Laham says, "The airport is a necessary public service and creates considerable environmental degradation of the surrounding community. Here we have an opportunity to pay back a little, and it's a wonderful gesture."
The gesture is not so wonderful to many. In 1972, at the request of Los Angeles County, a committee of scientists from the Natural History Museum and the Southern California Academy of Sciences placed the sand dunes at the top of the list of "critical" habitats in the county demanding "immediate action," and when the airport raised the possibility of expansion the Federal Aviation Administration requested that an environmental impact study be conducted.
In 1975, the California Department of Food and Agriculture asked Donahue to evaluate 24 species of California butterfly being considered for federal protection. With the assistance of 18 experts, including Paul Ehrlich, the "population bomb" biologist (who developed some of his theories while pursuing his original calling as a lepidopterist), Donahue recommended that the El Segundo Blue and several other species be declared endangered. Governor Jerry Brown approved the recommendations and the state forwarded them to the Interior Department, which last June ruled the six species endangered.
The California Coastal Zone Conservation Commission, which has jurisdiction over land lying within 1,000 yards of the mean high-tide level, also has leverage and has informed Laham that the public interest would best be served by letting the sand dunes revert to a natural state.
A fortnight ago, the Interior Department proposed to have the airport's 243 acres and Standard Oil's two acres declared critical habitat for the El Segundo Blue. Under the law, Interior does not have the right to condemn the land in question, but it can prevent any federal agency, such as the FAA, from funding, authorizing or carrying out any action that could jeopardize critical habitat. Governor Brown has 90 days to reply to Interior, while the airport, Los Angeles County, scientists, lepidopterists and other interested parties have 60 days.
There is no doubt the scientists will fight if they must. After exploring the dunes with Laham, Donahue remarked, "The entire area is worth saving, and we're going to do everything we can."
Happily, Los Angeles International may give in with grace and allow the little blue butterfly to maintain its fragile link with life, to have its two weeks in the sun. As Clifton A. Moore, the general manager of the giant airport, said to Donahue before the expedition on the dunes, "We're interested in protecting all forms of flight. Actually, we're interested in hybridizing these insects so they can carry 450 passengers."