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Parks officials reject grant request to construct Discovery Center at wildlife sanctuary in El Monte

April 15, 2011 |  9:42 am

California State Parks authorities have rejected a request for a $7-million grant needed to begin construction on a controversial $22-million, 14,000-square foot Discovery Center at the Whittier Narrows wildlife sanctuary in South El Monte.

“We did not fund that project,” said Cedric Mitchell, director of California State Park’s Office of Grants and Local Services. “You had to be a strong program to get funded, and we believe we did fund the best that the state has to offer.”

The Proposition 84 grant was sought by the San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority, which sees the proposed interpretive center as a gateway to a 17-mile stretch of parks and greenways connecting 10 cities along the Rio Hondo and the San Gabriel River.

It was among 307 requests totaling almost $1 billion for about $93 million in available grant money, Mitchell said.

Opponents decry the size of the center, which would replace dozens of mature trees –- as well as foraging grounds for migrating raptors and critical habitat for the endangered Bell’s vireo -- with a large parking lot and state-of-the-art interactive exhibits and displays, including a 7,000-square-foot model of the San Gabriel River with running water.

“Not getting this $7 million blows a big hole in their budget,” said Jim Odling, a spokesman for the grassroots group Friends of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area, which is opposed to the project.

The proposal was launched in 2001 as a modest interpretive center where visitors could learn about conservation and the activities of agencies that have been trying to upgrade and protect the area's watershed.

Since then, it has mushroomed in size, and several environmental groups have either broken public ties with its stakeholders' committee or chosen to remain neutral.

Belinda Faustinos, executive officer of the authority’s parent agency, the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, was not immediately available for comment.

Faustinos, who plans to retire in May, has said her decision to step down from the position was not related to a state Department of Finance audit of the conservancy’s use of funding under proposition 40 and 50 as of June 30, 2008.

The audit concluded that the conservancy and its joint powers entity, the Watershed Conservation Authority, had not exercised adequate fiduciary oversight of bond funds.
In November, members of the Gabrielino Band of Mission Indians denounced plans to build the center on a site they regard as ancestral lands.

In January, Friends of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area formally requested that California State Parks’ Nature Education Facilities Program reject the authority’s application because of alleged omissions and misrepresentations.


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Photo: A western sycamore tree adds shade at the Whittier Narrows Natural Area, where a $22-million, 14,000-square-foot Discovery Center on the ancestral lands has been rejected by California State Parks authorities. Credit: Marc Martin / Los Angeles Times