Pictured: Sign for the San Dimas Canyon Nature Center in San Dimas, California. Photo courtesy of Clement Lau.
Park and recreation agencies play a pivotal role in celebrating and protecting biodiversity. The term biodiversity comes from “biological diversity” and refers to the variety of life in a certain place. While often measured by the number of species, it can be applied at various scales from genes to species to ecosystems. Biodiversity provides numerous benefits, including ecosystem services like air and water purification, natural beauty, food security, resilience to climate change, and mental and physical health and well-being.
California is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world and is designated as a biodiversity hotspot, which is an area that contains exceptional concentrations of endemic plant and animal species (i.e., those that occur nowhere else), but also experiences high rates of habitat loss. As the most populous county in California and the United States, Los Angeles County offers a unique environment where over 10 million people coexist with wildlife. Specifically, L.A. County itself is a biodiversity hotspot that is home to more than 4,000 species of plants and animals. However, land development and climate change threaten plant and animal species, their habitats and the region's ecosystem.
Role of Park Agencies
Created in 1944, the L.A. County Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) meets the park and recreational needs of residents and visitors through programming, facilities, land acquisition and stewardship, and other activities. DPR has a dual role of being the municipal parks agency for the one million residents living in unincorporated areas and the regional parks agency for the more than ten million residents countywide. As such, DPR operates and maintains a wide variety of facilities, ranging from local parks to regional parks to multi-use trails to natural areas and wildlife sanctuaries. Described below are a few ways that park agencies celebrate and protect biodiversity, with specific examples of how DPR carries them out.
Establish and Maintain Protected Areas
One of the primary ways that park agencies contribute to biodiversity protection is by establishing and maintaining protected areas. DPR’s Natural Areas Division operates and maintains nature centers/natural areas and wildlife sanctuaries that encompass over 6,200 acres. These areas are of unique scenic, historic, geologic, and/or ecological value with distinctive natural features. They serve as havens for numerous species, allowing them to thrive without the pressures of habitat destruction. By overseeing and maintaining these protected areas, DPR ensures that these ecosystems remain intact for generations to come.
DPR’s natural areas range in size from a five-acre urban sanctuary at Stoneview Nature Center to 1,372 acres at Devil’s Punchbowl. The nature-based experiences offered by these facilities are diverse. For instance, visitors can experience 106-degree heat at Vasquez Rocks in August and two feet of snow at the Devil’s Punchbowl in February. Natural Areas provide many different opportunities for visitors to experience L.A. County’s unique features — for example: exploring the San Gabriel River at Whittier Narrows Natural Area, viewing the ocean from Deane Dana Friendship Natural Area, and taking in city views and a quaint native wildlife sanctuary at San Dimas Canyon just to name a few.
Develop and Implement Plans and Policies
Park agencies often develop and implement plans and policies that impact biodiversity. DPR, for example, completed the Los Angeles Countywide Parks Needs Assessment Plus (PNA+) final report in 2022 which serves as the county’s 30x30 plan to conserve 30 percent of lands and coastal waters by the year 2030 to fight climate change and protect biodiversity. The PNA+ identifies priority areas for conservation which are those that offer the most environmental benefits as measured by species diversity, significant habitat, habitat connectivity, habitat type, and proximity to a waterbody. It also identifies priority areas for restoration which are those that have the most environmental burdens with respect to groundwater threat, hazardous waste, poor air and water quality, and pollution burden.
DPR is now working towards implementation of the PNA+, which includes conducting parcel-level analysis for opportunity areas for land conservation and restoration; developing a land acquisition and park development toolkit; coordinating with community-based organizations, conservancies, and other agencies on parkland acquisition and strategies; and carrying out public policy and communications-related work to expand the definition of conservation to include the restoration of degraded lands.
Offer Public Education and Increase Awareness
Park agencies have a unique opportunity to engage the public in biodiversity conservation. They can organize educational programs, guided tours and workshops to raise awareness about the importance of biodiversity and the role parks play in its preservation. By fostering a sense of connection to nature, park agencies inspire people to become better stewards of the environment.
For example, DPR offers the Every Body Explores program which encourages local communities to responsibly experience the outdoors by visiting trails and discovering open spaces. Through this program, youth have an opportunity to become community scientists by participating in scavenger hunts and creative nature projects, such as building a birdhouse or designing an insect hotel. The free drop-in program is available at seven nature centers: Deane Dana, Eaton Canyon, Placerita, San Dimas, Stoneview, Vasquez Rocks and Whittier Narrows.
Collaborate with Conservation Organizations and Other Partners
Park agencies often collaborate with conservation organizations, other government agencies and local communities to pool resources and expertise. These partnerships can lead to more effective biodiversity conservation strategies focusing on key areas such as public education, land prioritization and acquisition, habitat restoration, funding, and sharing of best practices and lessons learned.
DPR regularly coordinates and collaborates with state agencies such as the California Natural Resources Agency and State Parks and conservancies such as the Baldwin Hills and Urban Watersheds Conservancy, San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. DPR has also partnered with cultural institutions like the Natural History Museum to offer education in environmental stewardship and sustainability.
As custodians of some of the most diverse and ecologically significant regions, park agencies and their actions have far-reaching impacts on both the local ecosystems and global conservation efforts. By establishing and managing protected areas, developing and implementing plans and policies, offering public education and increasing awareness, and collaborating with conservation organizations and other partners, DPR and other park agencies contribute significantly to the preservation of diverse ecosystems. But taking proactive steps to safeguard biodiversity is not just the responsibility of park agencies, it must be a shared commitment for all of us to ensure the health of our planet and all its inhabitants.
Clement Lau, DPPD, FAICP, is a Departmental Facilities Planner with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.