El Segundo Butterfly Preserve: An Airport Ghost Town Turned Rare Wildlife Refuge - Atlas Obscura
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El Segundo Butterfly Preserve: An Airport Ghost Town Turned Rare Wildlife Refuge

article-imageEl Segundo Blue Butterfly (photograph by stonebird/Flickr user)

Today miles of chain-link and barbed-wire fencing surround what was once an isolated, beachfront playground for the wealthy. Originally developed in 1921, Surfridge, California, was one of the many coastal developments to be built on the wide swaths of sand dunes that once dominated Los Angeles’ coast. While most of the coast was eventually developed, either into oil fields, sand mines, or otherwise urbanized, Surfridge became a enclave for Hollywood’s elite. Filled with palm tree-lined streets and custom cottages, Surfridge’s residents included Cecil B. DeMille, Charles Bickford, Mel Blanc, and Mae Murray, who called the development home more than a decade before Malibu would become Hollywood’s preferred beachfront town.

article-imageHouses on Vista Del Mar (via Los Angeles Public Library)

In 1930, a small airfield opened directly east of Surfridge. Over the next two decades, noise pollution from low-flying, increasingly frequent air traffic would become a fact of life in the community as tiny Mines Field slowly transformed into LAX during the height of the Jet Age. By the 1960s, Surfridge stood directly in the path the airport’s expansion plans. Under the guise of noise mitigation, LAX eventually claimed eminent domain, buying most of the homeowners out and condemning the homes of those who refused to sell. The neighborhood stood vacant until 1975, when nearly everything was bulldozed to make room for the airport to expand.

article-imageAirplane flying near El Segundo Butterfly Preserve (photograph by the author)

The airport’s expansion into Surfridge would never be realized, however. After spending more than a decade acquiring the land where Surfridge once stood, the airport came face to face with an obstacle with which it could not contend: the El Segundo Blue Butterfly. The butterfly, which feeds on a species of buckwheat endemic to Los Angeles’ coastal dunes, was critically endangered by the time the last of Surfridge’s buildings were demolished. In 1976, with a population lingering around 500 individuals, the butterfly became the first ever insect to be added to the Federal Endangered Species List. Realizing that the dunes could never be developed for airport use, LAX introduced the Dunes Restoration Project in 1986. The 470-acre area became a protected wildlife preserve maintained by the City and Airport: barriers were constructed, non-native species were removed, and native plant species slowly reintroduced to facilitate the butterfly’s recovery.

article-imageEl Segundo Blue Butterfly Habitat Restoration Area (photograph by the author)

Today, three of the species’ colonies continue to thrive: the El Segundo Blue Butterfly Preserve near LAX, the Chevron Butterfly Preserve adjacent to a Chevron oil refinery in El Segundo, California, and a tiny colony near Malaga Cove. Of the three, the El Segundo Blue Butterfly Preserve near LAX is the largest with an estimated 125,000 butterflies taking flight each summer. It is perhaps the only butterfly sanctuary to be both adjacent to, and maintained by, a major airport. The preserve remains entirely closed-off to the public, though remnants of Surfridge’s infrastructure (paved roads, power lines, and fire hydrants) are still visible through fences from the sidewalks and paths that surround the preserve.

article-imageEl Segundo Blue Butterfly (photograph by stonebird/Flickr user)

article-imagePalm trees lining abandoned streets (photograph by the author)

article-imageLandscape of the preserve (photograph by the author)

Anyone can now visit this ghost town-turned wildlife preserve through a path around the perimeter. Lot parking is available to the West at Dockweiler Beach and street parking can be found to the North along Waterview Street or to the West along Vista Del Mar.

article-imageEl Segundo Blue Butterflies (photograph by stonebird/Flickr user)

article-imagePlane soaring over the abandoned road (photograph by the author)

article-imageSign for the butterfly preserve (photograph by the author)

THE EL SEGUNDO BUTTERFLY PRESERVE, Los Angeles, Californa

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SCHMETTERLINGHAUS: THE IMPERIAL BUTTERFLY PARK, Vienna, Austria

VALLEY OF THE BUTTERFLIES, Rhodes, Greece

MONARCH GROVE SANCTUARY, Pacific Grove, California