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Tracking COVID-19 at UCLADance Disassembled: Seeing Beyond the Curtain

Urban Rangers explore L.A. coast from an environmental perspective, promoting public education

By Max Schneider

Feb. 25, 2010 10:57 p.m.

Heather Slattery has been surfing on the Malibu coast since the age of 12.

But a trip to those very same beaches one day last summer changed her perspective entirely.

The third-year student was on one of the Los Angeles Urban Rangers’ beach safaris when she decided to change her major from psychobiology to environmental science, based on what she learned from the group about the way private development has shaped the environment.

“It was a definite eye-opener,” Slattery said. “I learned a lot about how we work with nature and what we’re doing with it.”

The Rangers, an interdisciplinary group of artists, writers, and academics working to showcase public natural spaces in Los Angeles, will stage their next beach safari, like the one Slattery attended, on Feb. 27.

From their inception in 2004, they have worked to explore the intersection of environment and landscape in Los Angeles and to encourage others to redefine how they experience nature in the city, said Emily Scott, a Ph.D. candidate in contemporary art and theory at UCLA and the group’s founder.

Since then, the group has continued to stage large-scale events designed to promote public education about and access to natural spaces in the city. Among these is their beach safari, where participants go on a Jeep ride through several beaches along the Malibu coast, a part of town that has had a history of legal battles and controversies related to public spaces.

In recent years, a variety of factors, including misleading and false signs, security guards patrolling the beach and lack of open access ways onto the beach have been points of contention between beach access proponents, like the Rangers and some Malibu homeowners.

“The beach is one of the few successful public spaces we have,” said Jenny Price, a research scholar at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women and another Ranger. “But 20 out of 27 miles of Malibu coast is lined with private development and is really difficult to find and use.”

She said her group clears up confusion about which parts of the beach are public and which are privately owned by distributing maps and guides with this information at beach safaris.

While on the beach safaris, participants learn about the invisible lines in the sand between what is privately owned and what has been allotted for public use.

“It’s a common cultural assumption that (Malibu beaches are) off-limits,” said Nick Bauch, a UCLA Ph.D. candidate in geography and another Ranger. “(The safari) is meant to be an educational outing. The point is to see this landscape for what it is.”

UCLA students who have attended past safaris praised their unique nature.

“It’s kind of an adventure; you have to walk a ways to get to the beach,” said Diane Ward, a fourth-year geography student who attended a safari last summer. “It’s a sense of intrigue, a sense of playfulness.”

She added that the information she learned at the safari would serve her well in the future.

“Education has a viral aspect to it,” Ward said. “I have the tools to take other people there.”

For the Rangers, who employ their namesake metaphor in order to associate their group with the idea of exploration as opposed to protest, education is the ultimate goal of their safaris.

“We’re interested in elucidating spatial politics in L.A.,” Scott said. “The ranger figure allows us to navigate issues in a way that intends to be educational rather than explicitly activist.”

But some Malibu residents said while they welcome beachgoers, the Rangers can at times overstep their bounds.

“I don’t think people have any problem with the Urban Rangers if they want to bring people down (to the beach), as long as they respect the rights of people who own (parts of) the beach (and) if they stay in the public areas,” said E. Barry Haldeman, a UCLA alumnus who has lived at Latigo Beach in Malibu for 30 years. “The presumption that the whole beach is public is wrong.”

But the Rangers said they work to observe the rights of the homeowners.

“It’s not an anti-Malibu homeowner project but pro-public space project,” Scott said.

She added that this desire to be introduced to undiscovered public spaces is prominent in Los Angeles and that her group caters to it.

“There is an incredible thirst for public space in general in this city, and in particular access to beach space,” she said.

Despite their popularity, the Rangers plan on Saturday’s safaris being the last offered by the group.

The planning of the safaris has been time- and labor-intensive for the group, which is currently preparing guided tours of the 135,000-acre University of California National Reserve System, Scott said.

They will also soon publish and perform hiking tours of downtown Los Angeles.

But, for those like Slattery on whom the beach safaris have had great impact, it is the appreciation of nature in the city that are among the greatest values of the Rangers’ programs.

“Nature is kind of hidden in L.A.,” she said. “But these safaris bring people together and they become aware of how nature is really important in one’s life, and not just for aesthetics.”

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