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Tribute to Roma & Jean: Early Defenders of Ormond Beach

It must have been thirty years ago that I met Roma Armbrust, who, with her environmental colleague, Jean Harris, advocated the preservation of a wide stretch of beach along the Oxnard shore. Their early efforts and enduring inspiration recently paid off, with funded restoration plans presented to the public this last week of June. Ormond Beach will be preserved and eventually turned back into the healthy wetland it once was. With future land purchases and acquisitions potentially totaling nine miles and about one thousand acres, the Ormond Beach Wetlands Complex could constitute the largest coastal wetlands in the western United States.

We learned that almost two miles along Oxnard’s coast from Hueneme Road to the Pt. Mugu Naval Base will be saved from development and restored so that the indigenous plants and animals can re-populate the area. Many endangered plant and animal species still call it home. Hundreds of migratory birds frequent the water’s edge, the sand flats, the pools, marshes, and protective grasses.

And people will be able to access this rare remaining refuge on the Pacific coast that is close to population centers in Southern California. They will walk on prescribed paths, study the dunes and pools and the plants and animals they harbor, and examine the water’s edge, a zone of thriving life. They will visit Ormond Beach with family and friends to learn the story of our diminished coastal wetlands and how they can be restored. They will teach their children and grandchildren about our precious environment in a living classroom.

How did this come about? Rising consciousness about environmental preservation has grown over the thirty years since Roma and Jean first spoke up about Ormond Beach. They received a National Wetlands Award in 2000 for their ongoing advocacy. Now organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, The California Coastal Conservancy, and the City of Oxnard itself will support the restoration of this area.

There are things to be cleaned up, like industrial wastes, run off, and toxics deliberately dumped there. Also an obsolete power plant needs to go, even before its shut down date of 2020. It turns out we are awash in electrical power, having to pay other states to take it off our hands. A new proposed one nearby clearly doesn’t need to be built. Conditions have changed and the long-neglected Ormond Beach wetlands are going to be ecologically restored.

When Armbrust and Harris set out to save this rare coastal habitat, they were two individuals who had that shared objective. They met many obstacles and had serious set backs, fighting off golf courses, a marina, and housing developments, all of which they helped defeat. The ebb and flow of development pressures on the place were a continuing worry and challenge.

But other pressures were also building – the public’s desire to preserve the dwindling coastal resources. People fretted that undisturbed natural places were disappearing and that few original habitats along the coast would remain. Environmentalism itself grew and consciousness changed. We learned about rare plants and animals and the fragile habitats that sustained them. We learned that some our “benign” activities such as running our cats and dogs over the dunes and driving along the beach actually damaged the wetlands and the creatures living there. And we began to see the economic benefits to tourism and cities themselves that flowed from a special natural place that people could protect and enjoy.

But who would think that Ormond and other beaches would serve a vital function in protecting human development from a new threat—sea level rise due to global warming? We will rue the day we built right up to the edge of the ocean, destroying beaches and native sand dunes in the process. These dunes and wetlands actually function as buffer zones between the ocean and development inland. We will need to preserve more of these natural resources as the sea level rises and threatens our cities and crucial infrastructure.

There’s a key lesson here for environmentalists. Persevere, push back, delay, and propose attractive alternatives. One’s efforts will also ebb and flow with the tides of public opinion. Eventually your plan may settle into the consciousness of locals, politicians, and businesses, and result in a vision that you held early on that now inspires many others.

Gratitude for their vision coupled with perseverance is what we owe Roma Armbrust and Jean Harris.

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