An egret takes flight low over the marsh at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. (SCOTT SMELTZER / April 5, 2013)

The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is a refuge to many. It's where the endangered western snowy plover and the California least tern come to breed, where visitors snap photos of the fauna and flora, and on occasion, where even a few dolphins glide in the water.

But the 1,200-acre wetlands would have been housing developments if not for the efforts of three nonprofits in the 1990s: the Amigos de Bolsa Chica, the Bolsa Chica Conservancy and the Bolsa Chica Land Trust.

Conflicts have marred the groups' relations in the past, but they have come to realize the power in joining forces.

"Without the nonprofits, the state would be in a world of trouble in trying to manage the area," said Shirley Dettloff, an Amigos board member and one of its founding members. "It's a very large area and it's one of the largest wetlands in the state."

Although the three organizations oversee the wetlands, the majority of which is owned by the State Lands Commission, their general goals are the same: protect, preserve and educate the public about Bolsa Chica.

Where they differ is in their approach. For example, all three are focused heavily on educating the public, but the conservancy is taking things a step further by planning to build an interpretive center at Harriett Wieder Park, said Grace Adams, executive director of the conservancy.

"Education is the nexus of our work," she said. "It's really improving and increasing public awareness and understanding."

The land trust is actively trying to acquire remaining private parcels of the wetlands, not just to preserve the habitat but its history as well, said Connie Boardman, a board member and former president of the trust.

"There's still two privately owned parcels up on the Bolsa Chica mesa that we would like to see brought into public purchase in order to preserve, and that's the Goodell and Ridge properties," she said. "Bolsa Chica is important for wildlife reasons … but it also holds a lot of very important Native American history."

But the conservancy and land trust wouldn't have existed if not for the formation in 1976 of the Amigos, a key group that fought to keep out a housing development.

In the late1970s, developer Signal Landmark was proposing to build a marina and at one point 10,000 homes, similar to Huntington Harbour, on the Bolsa Chica wetlands, Dettloff said.

But Dettloff and the League of Women Voters, along with others in the community, didn't like Signal's proposal.

"Like what you do in a dog-and-pony show, you go around to all the influential groups and you make your case, which they did," she said. "But there were a few in the community, especially the League of Women voters, that didn't know whether this was really the greatest plan they've ever seen. And also, what was the status of wetlands? Were there any protections?"

Huntington Beach residents began to educate themselves about the topic, and the more they learned about Bolsa Chica and the dwindling number of wetlands in Southern California, the more they realized the importance of that location, Dettloff said.

During the next 40 years, the Amigos fought to defeat several state bills that favored developers, including SB 1517, which would have turned Bolsa Chica into a special district to raise funds and pay for the marina that Signal wanted to build, according to David Carlberg, a former president of the Amigos, in his book "Bolsa Chica."

"We defeated five bills in the state legislature," Dettloff said. "And we were just a ragtag group. I was a housewife and others were college professors. They came from all walks of life."

After years of lawsuits with Signal and finally reaching a settlement in 1989, the Amigos began looking forward to restoring the wetlands, Dettloff said.

Leading up to the settlement, a group called the Coalition formed to resolve the ongoing dispute over the wetlands. It was made up of members of the Amigos, Signal and federal, state and local agencies, Dettloff said.

Needing a trustworthy group to oversee the restoration of Bolsa Chica, the Coalition formed the conservancy in 1990, Dettloff said.

"This group would make sure that everything happened," she said. "The Bolsa Chica Conservancy was put together, at that time, to oversee restoration. But now it's taken on a whole different life."