Ironically, if the wooden power poles in the Santa Monica Mountains north of Pacific Palisades caught fire, it would help propagate an endangered plant: Astragalus brauntonii, known as Braunton’s milkvetch.
This interesting ecological situation came to light during last Thursday’s Community Council meeting on Zoom.
Currently, about 220 wooden power poles in the brush-covered mountains, from Mulholland down through upper Temescal Canyon and above the Highlands, need to be replaced.
The L.A. Department of Water and Power has explained that this pole line is one of two transmission lines that provide power to Pacific Palisades. The other power line runs westward from points east along Sunset Boulevard to the Palisades. DWP warns that if either line goes down, the entire Palisades will lose power.
The proposed new steel poles (weathered and rust colored) are more resistant to high wind and fire threats. The new poles are rated to last approximately 100 years and will increase power system reliability. The new poles will also increase fire safety.
The poles, 50-65 feet tall, will have raptor guards that prevent birds from being killed. “That’s a new industry standard,” LADWP spokesperson Deborah Hong told the Community Council.
The project to replace the wooden poles, many of which were installed between 1935 and 1955, originally began in 2019. It was halted when it was discovered that the work would impact the Braunton’s milkvetch, also known as “Locoweed.”
In August 2019, the L.A. Times reported in an article titled “Endangered Plants Bulldozed in Topanga State Park,” that DWP crews had “used bulldozers to construct a graded road as part of a wildfire prevention project in the Pacific Palisades Highlands and in the process may have destroyed hundreds of Braunton’s milk vetch plants.”
The story noted that an amateur botanist had alerted DWP, but that when the man returned to the site eight days later to check on the plants, the bulldozing crews had removed the vegetation across several acres for a new dirt fire road.
Albert Van Stryk, LADWP Transmission & Distribution Division Supervisor, also spoke at the PPCC meeting on September 24. He and Hong wanted the Council to write a letter to the Coastal Commission in favor of the power-pole project. The DWP will appear before that board in November.
PPCC Treasurer Richard Cohen said that the body could not write such a letter and that any support would be contingent on protecting the plants.
Hong said, “We have to both replace poles and protect plants. We have hired third-party experts for plant advice.” She emphasized that LAPD is willing and ready to do whatever the Coastal Commission suggests.
According to the U.S. Forest Service’s rare plant profile, Braunton’s milkvetch was added to the endangered list in 1997. A 1999 recovery plan noted that the plant was found at 18 sites in four geographic regions of California, totaling less than 3,000 individual plants. The sites were affected by immediate loss of habitat from development; one population was bulldozed during fire suppression activities and another was bulldozed during negotiations to protect the site in 1998.
The 1999 report estimated that the estimated cost of restoring the plants was $1,338,000 for the first five years, with additional costs over the estimated 20 years it would take to restore the plant from endangered to threatened.
The plant, which can reach five feet in height, only grows on small limestone outcrops (calcium carbonate). According to the California Native Plant Society, this plant is a chaparral species and requires “wildfire or other disturbance to propagate.
“The beanlike seeds require scarification to break down their tough seed coats before they can germinate,” the Society wrote. “The seeds persist for years in the soil until fire allows them to sprout, with populations of the plant springing up in an area that has been recently swept by wildfire.
“It is a pioneer species, one of the first to grow in a disturbed area and one that is soon crowded out by plant species that appear later in ecological succession. Wildfire suppression in the hills and mountains surrounding Los Angeles prevent the plant from reproducing.”
According to a January 2009 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 5-year Review of the plant (https://www.fws.gov/carlsbad/SpeciesStatusList/5YR/20090204_5YR_ASBR.pdf), in order for the plant to come off the endangered species, three criteria need to be met.
1) All current sites are protected and managed with the idea of preserving populations in perpetuity. Ten of the 16 identified sites have been. The remaining six sites are found on private lands or local agency lands where there is no protection.
2) Seed has to be collected. It has been collected from six of the 20 known populations and stored at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont.
3) Seed germination and propagation techniques have to be understood. In 2006, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden collected and germinated A. brauntonii seeds with 100 percent success rate.
The report note that the plant may seem to disappear for years because “it may be gradually crowded out by more robust and tough-woody chaparral plants until the next disturbance [fire] that removes plant cover.”
“The most common disturbance that occurs in Astragalus brauntonii habitat is wildfire, particularly during the extreme conditions of the hot, dry Santa Ana winds. . . . Most of the Santa Monica Mountains have burned 3 to 5 times in the last 60 years, with an average interval of every 12.4 to 20.7 years). Many of the plant species that comprise chaparral and coastal sage scrub communities regenerate after fire, either through the release of a dormant seed bank whose germination is stimulated by fire.”
According to LADWP, the new poles will meet current Public Utilities Code construction standards and load requirements and will increase power reliability and fire safety. The area where the wood poles will be replaced is not accessible to private vehicles. Only hikers and mountain bikers are allowed in this area. Construction Information Crews will begin preparing the area by clearing brush and widening trails as needed. Crews will then dig holes to prepare for installing the new poles.
Helicopters will be used to transport the new poles to each location. No homes are located in the flight path that the helicopter will take. Most trails will be open during construction, but hikers and mountain bikers may have to share the trails with construction crews, machinery and equipment during the installation.
LADWP sought the Community Council’s support for the project and advised that it will present a plan to mitigate harm to the endangered plant. The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) is aware of the project.
PPCC Chair David Card acknowledged the need for both pole replacement/fire safety and also to ensure the plant’s survival. The PPCC did not take action at this meeting.