The wetlands around Ormond Beach have been severely compromised by industry and agriculture. (Kit Stolz)

OXNARD, California

Regulars at Ormond Beach can’t remember the first time they saw Walter Fuller because he seems always to have been there.

Ormond Beach, about 100 kilometers north of Los Angeles, has tourism-brochure sunsets and attracts bird experts from continents away, drawn by the vast variety of birds en route to Alaska or Panama. But for decades it was known for something else. It was the place on the Southern California coast to dump what you didn’t want others to see: trash, toxic waste, bodies.

“There are things that have happened out at Ormond Beach that are not fit for print,” said Carmen Ramirez, the mayor pro tempore for the city of Oxnard.

Then, one day, Fuller ate his lunch there.

An amateur bird watcher, he saw right away the place was special — it had least terns, one of several endangered species of shorebirds that shelter in the area. “Oh, I like this!” he thought, and returned day after day during breaks from his security guard job toting his binoculars. Later, after a series of layoffs left him out of work, he spent all his time there, watching for birds and keeping copious notes about what he saw. His records became prized by city officials and environmentalists. At one point, the nearby Navy air base even used them for flight planning to prevent bird strikes. When Fuller became homeless, the city brought in a shipping container, strung it with fluorescent lights and plopped it down by the parking lot.

That’s where he lived for the next decade, in the shipping container by the Arnold Road parking lot. Eventually, they upgraded him to a little Winnebago.

With Fuller watching, crime fell, and the number of visitors grew 11 times over. He built a life for himself protecting fragile birds that need help from a guy like Fuller to keep the dogs away. Many people in Oxnard came to see Fuller as a hero. “Everybody loves Walter,” Ramirez said. “That ought to be our bumper sticker.”

“They used to call it the Wild Wild West around here,” said Fuller, who’s 60 years old and stout, sunburnt with a partially toothed smile. “But that was before I came here.”

Now, things are changing again. There’s a plan in the works that would redirect the main entrance away from the snowy plovers and least terns, adding a visitors center, hiking trails and a research facility. It’s a big plan: $10 million to build the kind of infrastructure that Fuller, self-trained and unpaid, has been providing for about 20 years. If the University of California buys into the concept, the hero of Ormond Beach may lose his habitat.

In 1972, a high school teacher assigned Fuller a science project. It could be about anything he wanted.

“I decided I wanted to see a bald eagle,” he said. “So I went out and got myself an Audubon Field Guide, and a pair of binoculars, and a little Brownie Instamatic camera. So I’m all set. So I walk up my favorite trail — the Gridley trail to the mountains in Ojai — looking for a bald eagle. I never did see one, but that got me hooked on bird watching.”

Walter Fuller’s home for 10 years was this shipping container. (Kit Stolz)

Fuller went on to care for birds, from cockatiels to parrots, at his grandparents’ home, where he grew up. He’ll tell you that his role model is his grandfather, a big outdoorsman who worked for the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal water agency.

Unlike his grandfather, Fuller has never been paid for his environmental work. After high school, he held two jobs for decades in the area, as a security guard for a computer firm at the Navy base, and as a janitor. He got married, and he and his wife raised two children. His wife died in 1986, and the base laid him off in 1996.

Then one day, Fuller’s car was broken into and his binoculars stolen. In that era, the ’80s and early ’90s, it would’ve been surprising if you weren’t burglarized at Ormond Beach. Until then, “I didn’t care about the people,” he said. “I only cared about the birds. As far as I was concerned, the people could have gone away.” But now he thought, “This has got to stop.”The first time Fuller came to Ormond was back in the early 1990s, while he was still working as a security guard. “I was looking for some place to have lunch off the base,” he said. When he saw all those terns, he started coming back virtually every day. It became his life away from work.

The wetlands around Ormond Beach have been severely compromised by industry and agriculture. (Kit Stolz)

Birders say it should be a sanctuary because it’s the stopover point for hundreds of species of migrating birds. This, despite the fact it’s surrounded by a natural gas power plant, the sprawling Navy base, agricultural fields and about half a million cubic meters of industrial waste.

Oxnard, a gritty city of about 200,000 people, didn’t follow the development pattern of wealthy California beach towns such as Santa Monica or Carmel. Instead, the city center grew up around its verdant plain, which supplies strawberries for much of the nation.

Meanwhile, worse things took over the beach. In the first half of the 20th century, the city had its dump there. Then in the 1960s, a metals recycling company called Halaco built a smelting plant on top of the dump. It cranked out waste so toxic it killed fish within 10 minutes. It took decades and countless lawsuits from citizens, environmental groups and the Environmental Protection Agency to shut it down. In bankruptcy, Halaco left behind an enormous mesa of hardened toxicity.

Even uglier, Ormond Beach became a favorite location to dump the murdered. In separate infamous 1990s cases, two women — one shot, the other stabbed — were left in a drainage ditch by Arnold Road, not far from where Fuller lives now. Fuller says he’s heard of other bodies, too.

Racing motorcyclists and dune buggies tore up the beach, destroying the thin crust of native plants that allow sand dunes to develop. Eventually, the city barred the beach to motor vehicles, but it still couldn’t completely control access until Fuller showed up.

On a recent Sunday, as beachgoers fished, held hands or just watched the waves, two big young men in two jacked-up 4x4s pulled into the parking lot. One of the trucks had “BAD ATTITUDE” emblazoned on its windshield. They revved their engines and tried to crash across the drainage ditch and out to the dunes, but got bogged down in the mud before giving up and speeding off.

“I know how to handle people now,” Fuller said. He called the police.

If endangered birds nest at Naval Air Station Point Mugu, under the jets taking off from its runway, they are automatically under the protection of the U.S. Navy, which has a 22-person team of biologists to oversee its holdings at the base and on the islands. By all accounts, the Navy takes its obligation seriously. During nesting season, Navy biologists with night-vision scopes watch over flocks of snowy plovers for predators, such as foxes and gulls. If an attacker appears to be targeting the birds, they are authorized to shoot.

If the birds choose to nest 800 meters north, at Ormond Beach — as many do — they have no official protection. Only Fuller, diligently checking to make sure people keep their dogs on a leash. He catalogues the barely visible nests and reports his findings monthly to the city council.

A newborn least tern shelters from predators. (R. Baak/USFWS)

It’s a very unusual situation,” said Peter Brand, who has overseen wetlands restoration projects for the California Conservancy. “It’s not at all unusual for people to volunteer to work at a restoration site, but I’ve never heard of anybody who went on to become indispensable to its operations.”

No one pays Fuller to do what he does. Brand has given Fuller money out of his own pocket, and one group has tried to pay Fuller from grants. But because he’s not a biologist and has no college degree, it’s been impossible. For food and everything else, Fuller survives on the generosity of friends and on his two children, who live in the area. He slept at his mother’s house for many years, spending all day at Ormond Beach. When she died in 1999, he was homeless. Five years later, the mayor and the city manager decided to do something to help.

Walter Fuller keeps a shelf in his shipping container with his late mother’s rosary beads and figurines. (Kit Stolz)

This was his home for 10 years. Then in June, the city council voted to spend $50,000 to provide their Ormond Beach caretaker with more dignified accommodations: the Winnebago.The shipping container — steel, windowless and cramped — arrived in 2004. A friend gave him a futon, scavenged from her son when he went off to college. Fuller put it in the back corner behind his desk. His bird books and records fill the shelves, and his mother’s figurines and rosary beads are arranged like a shrine to her memory. There are posters of wildlife, a small television and a miniature faux Christmas tree.

But bigger changes could be coming for Fuller. Last month, the city council backed a plan to restore the wetlands to their historic vastness, complete with trails, facilities for birders and students, plus a 170-acre agricultural research facility for the University of California’s agricultural extension.

No one knows how long this will take, or how much it will cost, or if it will work. The effort requires raising $10 million in seed money, moving a road, buying hundreds of acres of farmland from a reluctant seller and, not least of all, removing the Halaco waste and that massive, still-operating power plant. Still, the pieces are moving, and they don’t involve Fuller.

Fuller, for his part, calls it “the big dream,” like a distant hope. He has made no plans. And though he may have to leave his home, Ormond Beach, at least his house has wheels. Fuller says he’s more focused on the terns and plovers, which are doing as well as could be expected — perhaps even better than expected — given the drought gripping California. But best of all, he said, he spotted the bird he’s been seeking for 32 years. Bald eagles have been re-established out on the Channel Islands, some 30 kilometers away. One of them, No. 67 by its tag, perched on a power pole by his shipping container in October.

For years, the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, a nearby museum, has been asking Fuller for his bird records. Even though they could easily make copies, Fuller said he’s “having a hard time with that.”

Somehow, those pages, hundreds of them, easily legible in his big childish hand, are more than just data. They are the changing seasons and migration patterns. Days spent pacing the dunes and checking the brush for nests. Chatting with locals and visitors from faraway lands. The records have protected something precious — the beach, but in many ways, Fuller, too.

“I like to look back at it,” he said. “This is my life.”

Kit Stolz lives in Upper Ojai, California, where he writes and reports for various publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the Santa Barbara Independent, the Ventura County Reporter and the Georgia Review.

Edited by Ben Wolford. Additional editing by Jackie Valley, Colin Morris and Jon O’Neill.