On either side of the San Gabriel River is the Los Cerritos Wetlands, a stretch of about 500 acres and home to a wide range of native plants and animals.

Once over 2,400 acres of marshland, the fight to protect the remaining land is ongoing, and an integral part of that advocacy is Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust.

Founded in around 2001 as a response to a proposal to develop housing and a strip mall, the group has continually advocated for restoration and protection ever since.

The 500 remaining acres of Los Cerritos Wetlands are a fragile habitat, and the vast majority of Southern California wetlands have been lost forever to development and infrastructure, said executive director Elizabeth Lambe.

“Flat, coastal open space that is undeveloped is pretty rare these days,” Lambe said.

At the time of the group’s inception, all of the 500 acres was privately owned— now, about half of that land is part of a public trust.

“You can’t access them, and the main focus of those landowners may not be preservation. It may be oil drilling or other extractive activities,” Lambe said of the privately owned land. “But I think there’s a general perception and a movement that someday, all of Los Cerritos Wetlands, in one way or another, will be protected.”

The wetlands that are part of the public trust are managed by the Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority, a joint powers agency that operates under the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy.

While the Wetlands Authority conducts environmental reviews and proposes pathways for restoration, the Land Trust serves more as a community activist group, with a focus on education, Lambe said.

Protecting and preserving the land is a high priority, not only as a resource for threatened and declining species, but also as a community resource for students and families to enjoy, Lambe said.

To inspire more community members to protect the wetlands, the Land Trust hosts monthly nature walks with rotating themes: a “heron hike,” a “turtle trek,” and a “raptor ramble,” attracting anywhere from 10 to 100 people per walk.

The walks have been effective; while in the past, the wetlands were considered to be more “spongy and smelly,” in recent years, there has been a real turnaround in people’s understanding of the wetlands’ value and role in the ecosystem, Lambe said.

Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust works to provide educational programming for the community, including for youth. Courtesy photo.

Over the past few years, Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust has also led and hosted educational field trips for Long Beach youth through the Long Beach Parks program, Lambe said.

It’s important for the Land Trust to be involved in addressing equity issues within Long Beach, while providing access to as many people as possible, particularly reaching youth who may not have as easy access to nature and open space, Lambe said.

The program has recently extended to Santa Ana as well, said Lambe.

“We all live in a pretty urban place, and to have 500 acres of natural open space in Southern California, or in Long Beach or Orange County, is pretty rare, and we’re excited to see it become more and more of an outdoor classroom for students,” Lambe said.

As the Land Trust has worked to advocate for increased protections and restoration over the years, support for the efforts has grown along with it, reaching over 1,000 members and supporters.

But the fight continues. For the wetlands, the biggest challenge remains exploitation, including from development and extraction activities, Lambe said.

“We try to educate public officials and decision makers … make them understand what the impacts are, and whenever possible, look for win-wins,” Lambe said.

From ensuring that surrounding infrastructure is wetland-friendly, to utilizing bird-friendly lighting and native plant landscaping, the city has made some progress, but the work is ongoing, Lambe said.

“To learn about (the wetlands) is to fall in love with them,” Lambe said. “Our vision is that it moves further and further into public trust as a community and natural resource.”

Join the Los Cerritos Wetlands’ upcoming nature walk on Saturday, Feb. 4. Get more information here. Get more information about becoming a member here.