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Is Biodiversity the Future of LMU’s Sustainability Activism?

On Friday morning Sean Richards is already at work in the garden before ten. It’s one of the first truly warm days of the season and there are plants waiting for their spaces. The leaves of an early girl lettuce have already begun to wilt in the harsh sunlight and the best thing to do is get them into the shelter of soil. Of course, this is a student-run project and Richards is only one person, so we both get to work breaking up the soil while we discuss our experiences in sustainability. By the time we’ve planted one box and lined another, five more volunteers have arrived to help out.

Richards is ending his term as ASLMU’s Vice President of Sustainability as well as a term on the executive board of Eco Students. Eco Students along with its offshoot, Divest LMU, and Herbicide Free LMU pursue their own environmental goals as fairly casual student-led groups. On the more formal side of our organizations we also have Espérer Service Organization and the aforementioned ASLMU sustainability office. An honorable mention for student sustainability goes to Green LMU, which is not student run but employs many students. These account for nearly all of Loyola Marymount’s larger environmental movements.

Students at Loyola Marymount and from these groups have recently seen success in pushing the administration for several on-campus sustainability measures. With divestment underway, a new community garden in the midst of a pilot program, and progress being made towards a permanent composting program, biodiversity based on local flora looks to be the future of our campus.

Bird's-eye gilia at Ballona Discovery Park — photo: Abi Gill

The United States Department of Agriculture defines native plants as plants that have developed over hundreds or thousands of years in a particular geographic area. In Los Angeles that could be anything from shrubby sages to colorful wildflowers like the California poppy or bird’s-eye gilia. Non-native or introduced plants, like iceplant or eucalyptus trees, have been brought to the area either intentionally or accidentally. The Westchester campus has a mix of native and non-native plants. Lisa Fimiani, an environmental fellow at the Center for Urban Resilience (CURes) on campus estimates that around 80 percent of our plants are native or drought tolerant, while the other 20 percent are at worst benign introduced plants.

Caption: A “Flying Mango” seen near the bluff — photo: Abi Gill

“Palm trees are a great example,” Fimiani said, “because they seem to be this symbol of LA and they actually provide a lot of ecosystem services. So the question that comes out of it is, whether it’s native or non-native, is it providing an ecosystem service. For instance, the palm trees lining the bluffs, you walk over there this time of year, you’re going to hear a bird with this high pitched sound and if you look up and you get a glimpse of this bird, you’re just going to fall over at the beauty of it, it’s a hooded oriole. They’re gorgeous. Their nickname is flying mangoes because they’re this bright orangey yellow color… and they use our washingtonia palms, the dead fronds to nest in.”

The main sin of our non-native plants is simply that they are located in a space which could instead be used to support ecosystem biological diversity and native fauna including insects and birds. Our smaller, manicured grassy areas offer perhaps the least ecosystem services while also requiring more intensive watering than native plants might. With larger areas like sunken gardens, the argument can easily be made that they offer social and recreational services. It’s the medians and slivers of lawn along our sidewalks that make less sense.

Caption: Grassy areas less than ten feet across lining roads on campus — photo: Abi Gill

In their report on how college campuses can play a role in protecting wildlife, “Campus Landscaping for ‘Wild,’” Kristy Jones, Courtney Cochran, David J. Eagan, and Juliana Goodlaw-Morris note that the way schools manage green spaces can and should reflect their educational mission and that “not all greenery is created equal.” Our plants present a great opportunity for growth within campus operations and awareness. We do not want to be a monocultural institution, so why maintain so many monocultural areas?

A bed containing native California poppies on LMU’s Alumni Mall a few weeks ago. The flowers appeared to be thriving but have since been replaced with a variety of other plants — photo: Abi Gill

So what has been the focus of on-campus sustainability groups lately? Broadly, the goals that are currently in the works are the reestablishment of the garden for its current pilot program, pushing for a more permanent compost system, and on creating an organically managed campus.

LMU’s community garden used to exist in the space between Pereira and the old Sullivan and Huesman dorms, but was shut down when construction began on Palm North and Palm South. Richards and a few other members of Eco Students, now finishing their senior year, were among the last to experience LMU with a community garden. Students have been missing this active green space ever since. Reestablishing a garden in the space behind Tenderich apartments is a project over two years in the making primarily within the ECO Students club and with the help of Green LMU.

Our new garden is currently in its pilot program and according to Richards, it will not be complete until next year. At the moment only a few organizations have access to garden boxes with the inclusion of Green LMU, Esperer, ECO Students, and likely soon Herbicide Free LMU.

The garden’s main goal for the moment according to ECO Students co-president Liz Morris is to plant produce to donate to the food pantry on campus. Richards expressed the same goal but added that they are incorporating native plants into garden boxes in order to attract wildlife. Since we did conduct his interview in the garden while working on planting and preparing new boxes for planting, he was able to show me some native plants that had just begun to sprout situated within the inner sections of more established boxes where they will hopefully draw native pollinators.

Freshly filled and planted garden boxes in the community garden pilot project. Creating this new garden has been a collaborative effort between several organizations including Green LMU, ECO Students and Esperer with input from LMU’s Center for Urban Resilience with their president Dr. Eric Strauss, and environmental fellow Lisa Fimiani. Gardening days are also collaborative, occurring on Sundays for all involved orgs, but during the week watering and management are up to individual groups to put together — photo: Abi Gill

While our campus does not currently have a solid consciousness around the importance of native species, we do have an untapped potential and desire to be personally involved in the physical geography of LMU’s campus made evident by the garden. “We have a lot of greenery but not a way to get your hands dirty,” Morris said, “Not much we’re involved in.”

This push to be involved is reflected also in Herbicide Free LMU which co-president Anjali Bose said holds weeding events where students uproot unwanted plants to support the mission of organic management for our campus. Even with that, Bose expressed a desire for greater involvement.

According to Bose, “one of the taglines of HFC [Herbicide Free Campus] on a national scale is “decolonize aesthetics” and I think a lot of that is trying to really understand the land and appreciate the land for what it is rather than manufacture it to fit a certain way or a look. I think part of that is recognizing indigenous species and trying to understand what’s meant to grow here and what’s the way the land is supposed to be cared for.”

An area of campus between Burns Fine Art Center and Mckay Residence Hall that appears to be mostly unmanaged and contains primarily non-native sweet pea shrubs and blue corn-lilies mixed in with dandelions. This is one of many areas that present an opportunity for new land management emphasizing native species — photo: Abi Gill

Where we go from here depends on our student body’s willingness to pursue the goal of biodiversity and their ability to make enough noise to get attention from administration. The University of Southern California is leading the way on these efforts locally. Published in December of 2020 the article “Back to our roots: Native plants are growing again at USC, thanks to student-led effort,”with student Tianna Shaw-Wakeman says “...we have a responsibility to make sure that every plant we put in the ground has a distinct purpose and serves that community positively. I think we do that with natives better than anything else.”

A seating area within the Arc of Time’s Ginko Biloba dominated section. This is an area off the central path that offers shade and typically quiet within an existing green space and demonstration garden on campus — photo: Abi Gill

LMU sustainability leaders had the more ambitious thoughts in line with a demonstration garden on campus similar to the Arc of Time that currently exists outside of LMU’s life sciences building or the Ballona Discovery Park down the hill.

Richards said “I feel like that would be a really cool opportunity, maybe even along the bluff to have some sort of trail of native plants, kind of like they have that trail of time. I think it would be cool to have native plants and maybe signage explaining that and all.”

Fimiani suggested that we start with revegetation around LMU’s Tongva memorial, saying, “...the professor who was in charge of it left the university and no one took up the charge, the plants got trampled and weren’t replaced. There's no one to blame, it's just what happens at universities, but I’d love for us to get involved and get it spruced up and looking nice.”

Around a week after we spoke, Fimiani led a group of students pulling non-native plants at the site to make space for new additions. This seems to be a fairly effective way to follow through with our student body’s support of land acknowledgement and respect for the Gabrielino Tongva people. Not only by beautifying their monument but also by restoring a small portion of the habitat they call home. What students need to do is to make sure this issue like any other is not forgotten by virtue of university turnover, work together as a student collective, to remain persistent and to make ourselves heard.

A flower bed in Ballona Discovery Park containing several varieties of blooming native wildflowers. The Friends of the Ballona Wetlands website describes this park as a “museum without walls where visitors can learn the natural and cultural history of Ballona Wetlands.” This is a potential direction on-campus biodiversity could take — photo: Abi Gill

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