A visitor to the Chula Vista Nature Interpretive Center would never know it all started with ...

The bridge to nowhere

KOYAANISQATSI (fr. the Hopi language) n. 1) crazy life, 2) life in turmoil, 3) life out of balance, 4) life disintegrating, 5) a state of life that calls for another way of living.

by Jack Innis
steered my pickup truck over the tan ripples on the one-lane dirt road to the Chula Vista Nature Interpretive Center, aware of a growing sense of imbalance. Bordered on the west by a shallow bay, on the east by an angry snarl of freeways, on the north by faceless walls of warehouses, and on the south by a shipyard, the 300-acre nature reserve seemed out of place, like an oasis in the sand.
From across the flat marsh, I eyed the NIC complex. Its New England boathouse architecture is centered around a storied central hall with a peaked roof. The hall is intersected by a long, round-roofed Quonset hut on one side and a flat-roofed hall on the other. The complex, though beautiful, doesn't fit. It stands huge and alone, like a castle in the desert.

Half a bridge

I found a spot to pull over and reviewed my research on how this enigma came to be. The Chula Vista Nature Interpretive Center began, more or less, with the bridge to nowhere. On July 13, 1987 the Sierra Club obtained an injunction which halted construction of the I-5 to I-805 interchange and the extension of the South Bay Freeway (Route 54). The injunction was issued to force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin dialogue with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about protecting two endangered bird species: the least tern and the light-footed clapper rail. The injunction also created a bridge to nowhere - a closed-off half bridge which became a familiar sight to South Bay motorists. This was happening at a time when the Chula Vista Redevelopment Agency was pushing for a 400-room resort hotel on a piece of bay front property at the foot of E Street. The property was known as Gunpowder Point, home of the Hercules Gunpowder Company during the early 1900s.
For months, a pitched battle was fought between the Sierra Club, CalTrans, City of Chula Vista, Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, California Department of Fish and Game, Santa Fe Land Improvement Co., Chula Vista Investment Co., and Watt Industries. When the smoke finally cleared over Chula Vista, Gunpowder Point was chosen to mitigate the freeway right-of-way.
A bus-full of grade-school children, fresh from exploring the 10,000 square-foot exhibit building, approached. I waved at the driver and heard the happy cacophony of young voices as the bus passed by. I pondered the paradox of a wildlife refuge situated atop an old gunpowder factory and thought of a Hopi prophecy, handed down from generation to generation: "If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster."

A natural naturalist

The hub of the NIC is the galleria, which is inside the huge central hall I had observed. In it are over 20 aquaria and several interactive displays designed to enlighten children about our fragile environment. I became acquainted with the displays, photographed a family from San Antonio, and wondered who would be leading me on the behind-the-scenes tour of the nature reserve.
Barbara Coffin Moore is the kind of naturalist that naturalists are made of. She has been a docent and instructor at the Scripps Aquarium for the past 18 years, she has coauthored a book, "Walking San Diego," and she has lead thousands of nature walks throughout San Diego County. Barbara is the NIC's Coordinator of Volunteers. When she isn't busy at the NIC, she may be found teaching at Scripps, tagging monarch butterflies, weighing sea turtles at Bahia de Los Angeles in Baja California, or touring the elephant seal rookery at Año Nuevo State Park.
Barbara shares her Del Mar home with a seven-toed ginger cat named Tiger Lily; an endangered (and registered) desert tortoise named Napoleon; a lilac-crowned parrot named Chili Verde she caught in her eucalyptus tree; and a recently purchased parrot named Salsa that keeps Chili company.
Barbara unlocked the gate and we began our 90-minute walking tour of the grounds around the NIC. "We have lost 90 percent of our wetlands in San Diego County," she explained. "There are only about 3,000 acres left and we sit on 316 acres, including 46 acres of upland."
As we walked, Barbara pointed to signs of the land's tainted past; remnants of a World War II gun emplacement, tens-of-thousands of bricks from the abandoned gunpowder plant, a silted-up canal and railroad tracks. Yet, Barbara told me, the most severe degradation to Gunpowder Point was done in the seventies and eighties. "One of the prior landowners used to come down here on the weekends and charge people to let them dump their trash," she said. "We have taken more than 90,000 tons of trash out of here. The first and second year, we had inmates from the Donovan Correctional Facility here for three or four months at a time, literally loading up dumpster after dumpster."
We walked across a large plank that had been washed up at high tide. I picked up several pieces of pink and light blue glass and held them up to the sun. "Those are relics," Barbara said, "When we have docent-led tours, we have to remind people not to take them home with them." I returned the relics to the sand.
"One of the big projects coming out in the spring is trail delineation," she said. "People will then be able to come out on their own by checking in at the book store. Until three years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife didn't want the public out here at all, even on docent-led tours. In exchange for allowing people to come out here on their own, we've agreed to revegetate this 46 acres of upland. Since all of the land here was farmed in the '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s, all the old coastal sage scrub is gone. We're going to reintroduce an entire endangered habitat," she said.
Back at the NIC, we toured the burrowing owl exhibit, the stingray petting pond, the abalone farm, and NIC's classrooms and research laboratories. I was amazed that such a special place could exist, unknown to so many.
As I left the NIC that afternoon, I thought about the century of abuse mankind had afflicted upon Gunpowder Point, the gallant dedication of naturalists like Barbara Moore, and KOYAANISQATSI, a state of life that calls for another way of living.

Jack Innis is a freelance writer from Oceanside, California. More than 40 of his outdoor and environmental articles have been published nationwide. He is an alumnus of San Jose State University with majors in English and industrial design