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Climate & Energy
A Monumental Forest Restoration Opportunity
Char Miller

The San Gabriel Mountains are Southern California’s spectacular foreground and dramatic backdrop; they occupy a pivotal place in the Southern Californian imagination, past and present. On October 10, 2014, a sun-drenched and smoggy day, President Obama underscored their local centrality when he designated a portion of the Angeles National Forest as the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.1

To its promoters, the switch in nomenclature is critical. They believe that the nearly 350,000-acre national monument will generate additional dollars that will enable the U.S. Forest Service to enhance the visitor experience. That it needs enhancing is without doubt. Trees and rock faces are tagged and trash is strewn across meadows, scenic areas, and river banks; sodden diapers clogging the east and west fork of the San Gabriel River, whose headwaters lie within this rugged mountain range, are a too-common sight. Pomona College geologist Jade Star Lackey likens this devastation to a desecration. “On field trips we commonly go off the beaten path in search of outcrops, only to find ravines filled with trash and bullet-riddled appliances,” Lackey told The Student Life, newspaper of the Claremont Colleges (institutions that routinely use images of the snow-capped San Gabriels for admissions brochures and press releases). “We often pull up to a favorite outcrop that we’ve used for years to teach important geologic concepts like cross-cutting relations, only to find that it’s covered with graffiti.”2
President Obama signs the document creating the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument on October 10, 2014 in San Dimas, CA. Credit USDA CC BY-SA 2.0

Cleaning up this distressed landscape will be costly. But the key question is whether the necessary funds will be forthcoming. I doubt it. With the Republican Party in control of the House appropriations process, gaining additional public moneys will be difficult for all national forests, parks and refuges, let alone a new National Monument. At least in the short run, those who hope for more robust budgets will be disappointed.

Some of that disappointment may be mitigated by an increase in philanthropic dollars. In conjunction with the President’s designation, for example, the National Forest Foundation (NFF) announced the creation of a new $3million fund for the national monument. Since the 2009 Station Fire, which torched more than 160,000 acres on the Angeles, the NFF has been active in underwriting restoration projects in the Big Tujunga Canyon and other burned-over sites. The goal then was to rehabilitate damaged riparian corridors, replant the headwaters to protect against erosion and boost the forest’s capacity to sequester carbon, while rebuilding recreational opportunities in the forest.

That work is ongoing but the NFF, which Congress chartered in 1990 to support the Forest Service’s land management efforts, has taken on a new role with the announcement of the National Monument. Its San Gabriel Fund will help jump-start rehabilitation of those acres most battered by the annual influx of more than three million visitors. “This designation provides an exciting opportunity for the Forest Service and Los Angeles’ business and civic communities to provide residents and visitors with improved conditions to enjoy their public lands,” observed NFF president Bill Possiel. The fund will deepen “our commitment to long-term stewardship with community-based partners and to connecting Los Angeles County’s diverse residents to the National Monument.”3

That social good may be difficult achieve, however, given that the monument, for all its size, is not as large or as comprehensive as originally intended. Its first iteration called for it to absorb the whole of the San Gabriel range, stretching from the Cajon Pass on the east (through which I-15 cuts) to Newhall Pass on the west (through which CA-14 runs into the Mojave Desert). The logic was driven by geographic realities and management needs. By pulling together the entire Angeles National Forest and that portion of the range the San Bernardino National Forest stewards, the National Monument would streamline administration, making for more efficient and effective governance.

That plan made perfect sense on paper, but not in the imperfect political arena. Supervisors of San Bernardino County, responding to mountain community residents opposed to what they decried as a “federal land grab”—the irony is delicious, given that by definition a National Forest is also federal—unanimously opposed the designation. The Obama Administration responded by shrinking the monument so that its eastern boundary (as it had with the Angeles NF) runs in tandem with the Los Angeles-San Bernardino County line. However understandable, this decision will hamper efforts to manage recreation, wilderness, and endangered species in a more unified fashion across the range.

Those managerial efforts will be further complicated by the troubling fact that the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument does not include all of the Angeles National Forest, either. Although it is not yet clear what the administrative structure will be for the monument inside a National Forest, the inevitable overlapping authorities will not bring clarity to decision-making processes or streamline procedures, which is one of the issues that the monument’s proponents hoped to resolve through the original designation.

None of these difficulties—potential and predictable—undercuts the San Gabriels Mountains’ claim to National Monument status. They are more than worthy of this acclaim for reasons natural and human—not all of which are benign. “The San Gabriels, in their state of tectonic youth, are rising as rapidly as any range on earth,” John McPhee observed in The Control of Nature. “Their loose inimical slopes flout the tolerance of the angle of repose. Rising straight up out of the megalopolis, they stand ten thousand feet above the nearby sea, and they are not kidding with this city. Shedding, spalling, self destructing, they are disintegrating at a rate that is also among the fastest in the world. The phalanxed communities of Los Angeles have pushed themselves hard against these mountains, an aggression that requires a deep defense budget to contend with the results.”4
View of the San Gabriel Mountains from Cajon Pass. Credit Wikimedia User Ricraider/CC BY-SA 3.0

These very dangers of uplift and sloughing off add to this range’s uniqueness: when rain falls on their loose soils, the resulting debris flows are beyond treacherous; in August, a freak monsoonal storm dropped four inches on rain on the Mt. Baldy watershed, setting loose a churning torrent of rock, gravel, trees, and soil that killed one man, smashed houses, and gouged out roads. These same terrain, under scorching sun and fanned by furious Santa Ana winds, can funnel firestorms down slope and canyon to incinerate broad swaths of these stiff-folded mountains. Fascinating and terrifying, the San Gabriels are one of a kind.

They are home as well to some unusual geological features—the shape-shifting San Andreas Fault, for one—and a rich biodiversity consistent with Mediterranean ecozones that cover but three percent of the earth’s surface. More than 80 percent of the forest is covered in chaparral (a “bristly mane,” is how John Muir described it after hiking there in the 1870s), a habitat that contains upwards of 300 species of plants endemic to this region. Its streams, creeks, and springs sustain such threatened or endangered species as the yellow-legged frog and arroyo chub, while Nelson’s bighorn sheep occupy portions of the mountains’ windswept high ground; sailing overhead are California Condors.

These iconic natural features are matched by the mountains’ remarkable human history, which dates back 12,000 years. Native people used the foothills, ridges, and canyons for food, clothing, and shelter. They hunted across the rough land, made use of its pristine waters, set fires to “enhance the density of specific edible plant communities, increase the food supply for animals, and support the development of material used in construction and medicine.” Central to their cosmology, the San Gabriel Mountains were also their source of life.5

The San Gabriels proved as rich for the Europeans—ranching and agriculture made use of rain and snowmelt that flowed downhill: there would have been no citrus production in Southern California without these remarkable mountains and the alluvial fans that spread out from their canyons. The same can be said for recreation. The San Gabriels were the stimulus to the so-called Great Hiking Era of the late 19th and early 20th century. Hundreds of thousands of Angelenos took streetcars to trailheads in the foothills, and then trekked up Mt. Wilson and Mt. Baldy, and slept in the lodges that catered to their needs, blazing a trail for the more than three million people today who splash in the San Gabriel River, rest within a shady oak grove, or camp out in the Sheep Mountain Wilderness.

We can continue to commune with nature whether the landscape is called the Angeles National Forest or the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. And maybe that’s the point: the lands are more important than the name we give them. Yet its new status as a monument perhaps gives us an unparalleled opportunity in this climate-changed era to repair these lands so that they will do what they have always done—sustain the human and biotic communities that depend on them.

Char Miller, a University Fellow of the Pinchot Institute, is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, CA.

1 Of the new monument’s 346,179 acres, the vast majority is from the Angeles National Forest (342,177) and a sliver (4,002) from the adjacent San Bernardino National Forest.

2 Tim Hernandez, President Obama Names San Gabriels a National Monument, The Student Life, October 17, 2014. http://tsl.pomona.edu/articles/2014/10/17/news/5564-president-obama-names-san-gabriel-mountains-a-national-monument, accessed October 18, 2014.

3 “NFF Announces $3 Million San Gabriel Mountains National Monument,” October 10, 2014. http://www.nationalforests.org/press/releases/nff-announces-3-million-san-gabriel-mountains-national-monument-fund , accessed October 18, 2014.

4 John McPhee, The Control of Nature, New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux. 1989, 184.

5 Daniel Medina, The Indigenous Dawn of the San Gabriel Mountains. http://www.kcet.org/socal/departures/san-gabriel-river/the-indigenous-dawn-of-the-san-gabriel-mountains.html, accessed October 19, 2014.
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