Ian Swift
Superintendent, Placerita Canyon State/County Park

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Multimedia Editor

Sunday, April 16, 2006
(Television interview conducted April 11, 2006)

Ian Swift     "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmaker is Ian Swift, superintendent of Placerita Canyon State and County Park, and director of the Placerita Canyon Nature Center. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: How can Placerita be a state and county park at the same time?

Swift: It is state land that is operated by the county. It has been operated by the county since 1959. The Nature Center was built in 1971, and since then, the county has been a presence there.

Signal: You're wearing an L.A. county Parks and Rec uniform.

Swift: Indeed.

Signal: So you and everyone else at Placerita are county staff?

Swift: That's correct. The county operates the facility, they pay my salary, and it's operated by the L.A. County (Department of) Parks and Recreation. Actually L.A. County Parks and Recreation operates about seven Nature Centers all over L.A. County, and Placerita is one of them.

Signal: We've had a lot of rain over the winter and into the spring. How much gold has washed out of them thar hills and into Placerita Creek?

Swift: If I told you, I would have to kill you. No. I don't know. We don't look for gold. As a county park and a state park, it is prohibited to pan for gold in the creek. The creek, nowadays, is a sensitive riparian area. It is a sensitive feature. We don't allow people to go down there and stir up all the water and crush all the plants down there. It's a no-no.

Signal: Do you catch people doing it once in a while?

Swift: Every once in a while, we do. We politely tell them, "Maybe you could possibly go somewhere else." There are places you can pan in around Santa Clarita, in the Angeles National Forest.

Signal: Where?

Swift: Up in the San Francisquito Canyon area. There are some areas within the Angeles National Forest.

Signal: In San Francisquito Creek?

Swift: There. I don't know how much gold is there, but—

Signal: But there is some gold still in Placerita.

Swift: I'm sure there probably is.

Signal: "Placer." "Placerita." Tell us about the Oak of the Golden Dream.

Swift: It is a probably what put Placerita Canyon on the map, definitely, and to a certain extent, Santa Clarita. The Oak of the Golden Dream is where gold was technically, officially, first discovered in California by Francisco Lopez. The oak is the spot where we have all of our plaques and everything that tells us where that historical discovery (took) place.

Signal: Who is protecting the Oak of the Golden Dream? The state? The county? Both?

Swift: Both. We definitely work together. But primarily, the county is the operating agency there, so we (do). It's on the parkland. We monitor it. We make sure it's OK. We've got a fence around it so people don't climb it. A while back, it was unfenced, so people were crawling — it was a big, hollow tree, so people were crawling up in there. Now we fence it off to make sure it has many years to come. In the fire of July 2004 that went through the park, it got scorched a little bit, and certainly it's not the first fire it has gone through, I'm sure. It's over 300 years old. So it got scorched, but it is none the worse for wear.

Signal: People said it was a miracle that the Nature Center escaped the fire. Was there damage?

Swift: There was no damage to the Nature Center, believe it or not. The outside of the fence around the Nature Center was scorched by the fire, and the trees and the patio were scorched by the fire. That's how close it came. We came very, very close to losing the Nature Center. But the all the firefighters who were working that fire were using the Nature Center as a base, the rest rooms we had there; it was a nice place for them do that. They set up their camp and food and everything, and firefighters — if that's their camp, they have to defend it. So they did. And they did it very well. They did an admirable job. It was a very tough fire, 6,000 acres, and there were other fires going on during that same time. So they did a great job.

Signal: Some plant specimens were wiped out in the fire. Have they been replanted? Are they coming back?

Swift: Just about everything has come back from the fire. Everything looks good. It's great. That same year, we had our El Nio, and we had close to 60 inches of rain at the Nature Center. So everything has grown back really, really well. So far this year, we have had a pretty wet winter. It's been relatively cool, but the regrowth at the Nature Center has been tremendous. I estimate in about five years or so, you won't even be able to tell there has been a fire there.

Signal: How do people get to the Nature Center?

Swift: It's located off the 14 Freeway on Placerita Canyon Road. You need to head east, which is up toward the mountains, not back toward town. It's about a mile and a half from there, on the left hand side. The park is open every day from sunrise to sunset. The Nature Center is open every day between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., seven days a week.

Signal: If people go out there now, what can they expect to see?

Swift: A lot of cool stuff. Obviously we have the Nature Center, and it's a 6,000-square-foot nature center with exhibits on nature, cultural history; we have exhibits that show live animals, examples of fauna of the area. We have a 350-acre natural park, 12 miles of hiking trails. We have trails that are short, that families can go on. We have trails that are longer, if you want to take a long hike.
    As far as animals go, we have a fairly diverse number of animals you can see. One hundred sixty species of birds have been seen there, we have 435 species of flowering plants, 50 species of mammals — just a ton of things you can see. Scrub jays, bobcats, gray foxes, all that stuff.

Signal: Are the flowers in bloom yet?

Swift: The flowers are getting ready to bloom. It's been a pretty cold March. There are a few things out right now. I imagine if we get a couple weeks of warm, sunny weather in mid-April, it will be absolutely excellent.

Signal: How long have you been affiliated with the park?

Swift: I started at the Nature Center as a Junior Ranger in 1988.

Signal: When you were 2.

Swift: No, I promise. I think I was in the 10-11-12 range. Then I was hired on as a part-time staff person in 1994. I was supervisor in 2002 and remain such.

Signal: You were there while the park was going through all the funding turmoil between the county and the state. At one point it looked like it was going to be closed. Where do things stand today?

Swift: Things stand a lot better than they were before. We had a tough time a couple years back. That was a tough time in the state in general; the state was going through a major budget crisis. Local governments like the county of Los Angeles had to make some very tough decisions. But I am happy to report the county is still on board with the Nature Center. Supervisor (Michael D.) Antonovich has done some great things for us. We are very pleased to say that the Nature Center and the park are fully funded, and actually have increased funding and staffing this year, to put on some really great programs. We're really excited and very pleased that the county is funding the Nature Center.

Signal: At one point the county wanted to get out of its 50-year operating agreement and the state wouldn't let it, and ultimately they brought in the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy for six months while everything got figured out.

Swift: They did, because of the funding crisis. We got the Placerita board of directors together (with) the county to try and come up with some kind of solution, work with Supervisor Antonovich's office, try to figure out, what is the best thing we can do to keep the Nature Center going? The compromise was to bring in the state agency, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and they agreed to operate the Nature Center for awhile...
    Then another compromise was worked out where the volunteer association would pay for some of the costs of operating the center, and the county would pick up the rest. Now the county is able to fully fund, and it really increased some of the funding this past year. We're really happy about that.

Signal: Is it still a year-to-year thing, or is there a long-term funding plan?

Swift: Well, there isn't a long-term (plan); it is from year to year. But the county said they are committed to funding and keeping the Nature Center open.

Signal: You mentioned the Placerita board. Who are they?

Swift: The Placerita Nature Center Associates are the volunteer organization that helps operate the park. They are all ... volunteers, and they have their elected board, and they give guidance to some of the programs and help feed the animals. Any donations people make to the Nature Center — that's our nonprofit group that helps us to operate the Nature Center, so when you put a little money in the donation box ... they make sure that all those donations go to caring and feeding for the animals and making them nice enclosures and all that.

Signal: So if you make a donation at the Nature Center, there's a guarantee that the money stays at the Nature Center instead of going to downtown Los Angeles?

Swift: Absolutely. If you donate to our volunteer organization, 100 percent of those donations stay within the Nature Center. There's no overhead. There's no nothing. It all goes to caring, feeding our animals, and sometimes, to a certain extent, helping out programs.

Signal: Tell us about some of those programs. What's new?

Swift: We've got a great new program coming up this year. It's called the Community Hiking Club. It is a partnership between many different organizations here in Santa Clarita. We have the Chamber of Commerce on board, the SCV Jaycees are on board, we have business partners like Sky Blue Realty —a lot of different organizations and businesses are getting in on this. It's really to promote healthy lifestyles and get kids outdoors into potential wilderness areas all throughout Santa Clarita.
    Basically they can call up the Nature Center at any time and schedule a hike. They can go for a easy hike, a moderate hike or a strenuous hike. We will take them to Placerita, we can take them out to Whitney Canyon, the Castaic mountains, Magic Mountain wilderness area, all these different areas, not just Placerita. We have volunteers lined up to lead kids out there.
    It's a real important issue out here in Santa Clarita, getting people outdoors, healthy, get their pulse beating, see trees and the outdoors. A lot of people spend a lot of time in the city, the concrete jungle. We're just trying to get people outside and get some healthy lifestyles started.

Signal: How did people get hooked into this hiking program?

Swift: They can call Nature Center at 259-7721. They can also visit our Web site, That has information on the Community Hiking Club. They can also visit and click on "Santa Clarita." The California Wild Heritage Campaign is a partner of our Community Hiking Club, as well.

Signal: What do they do?

Swift: They are trying to get support for proposed wilderness areas on federal land around Santa Clarita. So they are one of our partners, and they are helping us get kids of the community out into these potential wilderness areas.

Signal: We hear that a lot of school kids come out and visit the Nature Center, like kids from Los Angeles who've never seen a cow.

Swift: Well, actually, we don't have cows.

Signal: OK, but they get their first brush with the wild. How many kids come through Placerita every year?

Swift: We have a lot kids come through Placerita every year. This year, we're on course to set a record for the number of kids who come through. We're on course to have about 19,000 kids come through the Nature Center and participate in programs. That is just (how many) participate in our education programs. We have, total, about 125,000 visitors every year to the park.
    The school kids who come to the Nature Center — they are from Santa Clarita, but they are also from all over. We get kids from, like you said, sometimes from South Central L.A., East L.A.; they come to the Nature Center and they think they are out in the middle of the wilderness. They hear a rustle in the leaves and they jump up a tree or something like that. A lot of times it's the first time they have ever been out—

Signal: It's usually a rat or a mouse or something.

Swift: A little bird is shuffling though the leaves or something like that. Occasionally it's a rattlesnake.

Signal: If the hiking program is new, what are some of the standard programs?

Swift: We have all kinds of good stuff. Every Saturday at 11 a.m., we have a Family Nature Walk. Families can come out and go through a little walk in the park, they can learn about the history, and they learn about the plants and animals. Also every Saturday at 1 p.m. we have an animal presentation, so if they want to see some of the live animals, the owls, the hawks, the snakes, the tarantulas, the falcons, they can see some of those up close.
    We have a Bird Walk that we do. That's the second Saturday of the month at 9. We have the Moonlight Hike program, which is the third Friday of the month, and now that the time changed, I think it's at 8 p.m. Also, this year we are starting — because of our funding increases — we are starting a campfire program. We started that in January. That is the fourth Saturday of the month between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. We're going to camp out and roast marshmallows, have hot chocolate, tell native American stories. It's a fun time for the family.

Signal: Do volunteers help run these programs?

Swift: We're supported by volunteers throughout, absolutely. If people are interested — every month we have a volunteer orientation. That's the first Saturday of the month at 10 a.m.

Signal: The Nature Center is going to go through some renovations, right?

Swift: We're going through a facelift, indeed. Starting this fall, the Nature Center will be closed — we hope a little less than a year. We're going to have a trailer in the parking lot. It's going to be a much reduced operation while the Nature Center is getting a facelift. We're going to get a new roof. We have a leaky, old wood-shingle roof in the middle of a fire zone out there, so we're getting a new roof. We're getting central air conditioning. We're making some ADA — Americans with Disabilities Act — improvements in accessibility with rest rooms and our building. It will be a nice facelift to our Nature Center.

Signal: The Nature Center will be closed when?

Swift: Hopefully sometime about November.

Signal: You'll continue with all of your programming?

Swift: We will be doing most of the program, probably about 75 percent of it. We will have to cut a few things just because it's not possible to do (some) things out of a trailer. But a lot of (activities) will occur outdoors...

Signal: The county will be funding the improvements?

Swift: The money that's going to fund the improvements are through Proposition A, which was the county bond — 1992 Prop. A, and 1996 Prop. A.

Signal: Tell us about Ian Swift. How did you go from Junior Ranger to — did you study nature in college?

Swift: I studied biology in college. I enjoyed Placerita for a long time. It is my favorite place. I got started there; my dad teaches at Cal State Northridge. He teaches geography there—

Signal: A lost science.

Swift: It is, really. And at the time, the supervisor at the Nature Center was a geography major, so I would hang around with my dad and she would come and say, "Oh, you've got to come out to this Nature Center (where) I work." I said, "Oh, OK," so I went out and went, "Wow. This is totally cool." All these animals, all these trails — I was just one of those kids who was fascinated with nature all my young life. So I volunteered there as a Junior Ranger and did all kinds of stuff, finally got hired on, part-time, and here I am, supervisor.

Signal: What was the attraction to biology?

Swift: My specialty is insects, and in particular beetles. I travel all over the world, mostly to Latin America, studying beetles — Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, French Guiana. In fact, just recently, I helped the BBC film a show down there, one of the David Attenborough specials. As he goes through the different animal kingdoms, he is getting to the insects and arthropods. It's titled, "Life in the Undergrowth." We filmed in French Guiana. We did some of the giant insects — actually the worlds largest insect, which is something called titanus giganteus, appropriately.

Signal: A beetle?

Swift: Yeah. It's a giant beetle. We managed to catch some, and they filmed some sequences of that down there.

Signal: Did you bring it back to Placerita?

Swift: I did. It was in The Signal newspaper the day I came back. That was pretty cool.

Signal: What's the weirdest thing you've encountered at Placerita?

Swift: The weirdest thing I have encountered at Placerita? Well, there have certainly been some interesting animals that I have encountered there. I was putting out some beetle traps late one night about 4 in the morning, and I got stalked by a mountain lion as I was doing that, down in the camp ground. That was kind of scary. I didn't have anything on me. All I had was my Leatherman tool. I had my flashlight, so I shined the flashlight in the mountain lion's eyes. (That) was enough to keep it at bay until I got up to my car. That was — I do that now during the daytime.

Signal: What's with the beetle traps?

Swift: One of the groups I study are called rain beetles. They fly at dawn, or actually pre-dawn, during the rain. An entire group is only found on the West Coast of North America, and there are a couple of interesting species at Placerita Canyon. So I was putting out these battery-operated, ultraviolet blacklight traps that they are attracted to. They fly about 5 in the morning. In order to put them out on the hillside somewhere, you've got to start hiking around 4, in the dark, in the rain.

Signal: What do you do with them when you catch them?

Swift: I study them. I look at their DNA, see how they are related to each other.

Signal: DNA analysis right there at Placerita?

Swift: Not at the Nature Center, no. We do it a UC Riverside. ... They have a nice DNA facility where you can sequence the different genes and tell how these are related to each other.

Signal: What kind of discoveries have you been involved with?

Swift: Probably about six new species of rain beetles from California, and actually one of them is in Southern California, Los Angeles County, in the Santa Monica Mountains. So it's a pretty exciting coup that you can come to L.A. and find new species of beetles.

Signal: Are there other things that are unique to Placerita, or this area in general?

Swift: Biologically, Placerita is one of the most diverse areas than I have ever seen in Southern California. We have about 435 species of flowering plants at the park, which is a lot for just a 350-acre park. I have been to a lot of parks, and hiked mountains all over this area; 435 is pretty biologically diverse. So it's a very interesting area. Santa Clarita is home, as you know, to a lot of endangered animals ... so those are in and around the Nature Center area, as well.

Signal: Are there places at Placerita where you can't walk?

Swift: We encourage everybody to stay on the trails, not trample habitat. We get endangered species that come through, like willow flycatchers, California gnatcatchers — those are birds, little songbirds.

Signal: Thinking back to the history of Placerita, there was gold panning that went on there, and oil drilling, and filming. You said you don't do any more gold exploitation in Placerita; what about oil? You can still see seepages out there—

Swift: No, It's not commercially viable. The fact of the matter is, neither is the gold operation. Even before it became a park, somebody would be out there.

Signal: The county would be on it as a revenue source by now.

Swift: Well, I'll tell you, when the funding crisis hit—

Signal: You can almost picture Mike Antonovich out there with a pan—

Swift: Actually at our open house, we will be doing mock gold panning. We'll dam up a little area on a side creek that's not a sensitive area, and the little kids can — we will salt it, if you will, with little gold flakes...
    Our open house is coming up this May 6. It runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It's a big event. There's going to be a lot of people there. We're probably going to have to do some off-site parking, because we can't cram everybody in the parking lot there. So be patient. But it's a really cool event. We're going to have the gold panning, history demonstrations, we're going to have groups from all over Santa Clarita, environmental organizations. We'll have a petting zoo, we'll have our animals at the Nature Center. It's our (annual) open house. We have done it close to 30 years in a row now. It's our big thank-you to the community for all the support they have given us over the year.

Signal: Can people bring food and charcoal and have a barbecue?

Swift: We have a picnic area at the Nature Center. The fires are subject to certain restrictions. If you're there at certain warm, windy times of the year, especially in the summer and fall, you probably won't be able to do a barbecue. During the open house, we will have food...
    Right now, during the spring, people can go out there and barbecue and have a picnic. We have a beautiful picnic area underneath the oaks out there. Its really nice.

Signal: You covered gold and oil; what about filming?

Swift: We do we do a fair amount of filming. We have some filming going on right now, actually. We get a lot of student films, occasionally we will do feature productions, we get commercials, all that kind of stuff. We get "CSI," we get horror films, we get various commercials, I don't even know what they're for. It's actually a popular film location, still.

Signal: You've been a Placerita almost 20 years and you're only 28. What's next?

Swift: I am enjoying Placerita right now. I have a great group of volunteers. It's a great facility. We're funded. We've got lots of resources, a lot of community support. I really enjoy working out here in Santa Clarita. It's a wonderful community.
    I want to make Placerita better. I want to bring more community to this valley. I want to see how we can get people from all these different organizations in the valley — like I said, the Community Hiking Club, we're partnering with the Boys and Girls Club, the Community Center, YMCA — we have so many organizations that we like to work with, and get kids outside, kids dealing with nature. These days it's really becoming a deficit. People are growing up without nature and without the outdoors. I look forward to many years of working here in the valley and really connecting people to nature.

Signal: Every now and then we hear rumors of expanding the park. What's up?

Swift: There is some Proposition A money for land acquisition. It's a matter of finding the right parcel, the right price, a willing seller. But we're definitely interested in expanding the park and making sure we have an adequate buffer zone for any future development that might occur in the area. So we're always interested in land owners around the park and the Nature Center to see if we can expand our boundaries.

Signal: With the Golden Valley Ranch development, there will be about 900 of open space right across Placerita Canyon Road. Will there going be some kind of coordination between the park and that open space area? Will it become part of the park?

Swift: No, it's going be operated by the city of Santa Clarita in the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority — the Santa Monica Mountain Conservancy. We obviously have a relationship with them, and ... we're hoping that we can connect some trails to that 900 or so acres of open space on the Golden Valley Ranch. That way, we can get some really nice hiking and horseback riding trails, especially the people in Sand Canyon, because I know they have a lot of horses there, to be sure that all these trails are eventually connected so that we have some great recreational opportunities for people here in Santa Clarita.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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