Exploring the LAX Dunes

The wildlife preserve sits just north of El Segundo yet remains unseen to many.


By Maureen Kingsley


El Segundo community member Darlene Gaston gives voice to what so many of us are thinking in her essay “Big Little Blue,” published last year in El Segundo Writes: A Collection of Writing from the Community. “Shouldn’t I have seen a blue butterfly by now?” she asks herself, while driving the length of Pershing one afternoon and seeing for the umpteenth time the bright-blue sign for the El Segundo Blue Butterfly Habitat Restoration Area positioned at the thoroughfare’s southern end. “Is that sign left over from a bygone era?” she wonders. “Perhaps that butterfly is a mythological creature.”

Her curiosity growing with time, Darlene eventually finds herself exploring the restricted-access LAX Dunes on foot one Saturday morning, months later, having signed up along with other citizen-volunteers to help remove invasive plant species from the area. The clean-up event is a monthly effort coordinated by Friends of the LAX Dunes (FOLD), The Bay Foundation, Loyola Marymount University’s Coastal Research Institute, and Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), and Darlene is there to help, to learn about the ecology of the dunes, and to finally catch a glimpse of the storied El Segundo Blue. Two hours into her work pulling black mustard and wild oats from the sand, she finally gets her chance.

“I see it!” Darlene calls out, after the volunteer coordinator points to an El Segundo Blue fluttering among the seacliff buckwheat plants that are native to the area and vital to the endangered butterfly’s survival. No wonder I have never seen one before, Darlene writes. It is the size of a thumbnail. Her fellow volunteers gather excitedly, trying to see this tiny, rare species for themselves, while the coordinator explains that the female butterflies are brown or gray, with spots, while the males are the shade of blue for which everyone is searching among the vegetation. Darlene is pleased to learn that El Segundo Blue Butterflies are, in fact, real, and that she has contributed to their welfare. It is a memorable, special experience, and one that any local resident interested in geography, ecology, and conservation is welcome to enjoy.

Photos of El Segundo Blue Butterflies and the old Surfridge neighborhood provided by Los Angeles World Airports. Photos from volunteer event by Maureen Kingsley.


LAX Dunes History

Before visiting LAX Dunes as a volunteer, it’s helpful to know their recent history. The largest remnant of the greater Southern California Dune System, which originally spanned coastline from Palos Verdes to Santa Monica, the LAX Dunes comprise roughly 307 square acres of protected wildlife bordered by Vista del Mar to the west, Pershing Drive to the east, Imperial Highway to the south, and Waterview Street to the north. Now owned and managed by LAWA, the preserve is home to more than 900 plant and animal species, more than 90 of which are unique to the Los Angeles area—including local favorite the El Segundo Blue Butterfly.

This ecological sanctuary, however, was not always so. Local residents whose South Bay roots go back generations are likely to have heard about the old Surfridge and Palisades del Rey residential neighborhoods (pictured here in black and white), which were developed just off the beach between Pershing Drive and Vista del Mar in the 1920s, where the preserved dunes are now. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, as Los Angeles International Airport sprung forth from the original, smaller Mines Field airfield built in 1928, what became more and more apparent was that LAX and those beachside neighborhoods west of Pershing simply couldn’t coexist in that space.

As a result, the 1970s saw the Surfridge and Palisades del Rey neighborhoods reclaimed by the city of Los Angeles, the residents relocated, and the homes and infrastructure dismantled. Restoration of the natural dunes began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and in 2014 Girl Scout Gold Award winner Ayanna Neal formed the nonprofit group Friends of the LAX Dunes (FOLD), now part of The Bay Foundation, to assist in this effort. FOLD’s monthly volunteer events continue to this day, and local groups and individuals are encouraged to register and attend.


Experience the LAX Dunes Yourself

Like Darlene, any and all of us here in El Segundo, the South Bay, and beyond are welcome and encouraged to register for a monthly Saturday-morning dune-restoration event. All ages are invited, says Chris Enyart—an LMU alumnus and Watershed Programs Project Manager for The Bay Foundation who leads the Saturday volunteer events—so long as young children are supervised by capable adults. “We’ve had scout groups, kindergarteners, employees from AT&T’s El Segundo office,” Chris adds. “We also do targeted outreach to inland and underserved communities.”

The morning typically begins at 9:30 and provides education, exercise, and beautiful coastal views for participants. Chris or another volunteer coordinator teaches those gathered about non-native species, such as grasses, mustard plants, and Russian thistle, which need pulling and removing, versus the natives: beach evening-primrose, beach burr, deerweed, and the species required for the El Segundo Blue Butterflies’ survival, seacliff buckwheat, says Nancy Price, Environmental Specialist II for LAWA. Volunteers also learn about endangered and threatened animal species they may encounter on the dunes, if they are lucky and observant: San Diego horned lizards, gnatchatchers, El Segundo Blues, legless lizards, and burrowing owls. They’re then turned loose on the dune to uproot and bag invasive plants, thereby making room for the natives and helping to restore the ecology of the area. The volunteer coordinator helps as needed and points out lizards, birds, and yes, butterflies, to the volunteers as they work.

“We appreciate people coming out and spending time with us and learning how species survive and thrive,” Nancy says. Her colleague Frederick Badlissi calls the LAX Dunes “a unique gem” and points out the special opportunity we as locals have to participate in something so informative and educational close by, that’s also physically bracing and just plain feels good.

Volunteer LAX Dune restoration events take place on the first Saturday of each month, excluding holidays and weather permitting, and they begin at 9:30am. Those interested in participating are asked to register online in advance, after which you’ll receive information on where to report the morning of the event.

For more information, visit Friends of the LAX Dunes and The Bay Foundation online, and consult our Guide to Cultural Events for the next Saturday volunteer event. See you at the dunes!


This story appears in the March 2020 issue of The El Segundo Scene.

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