U.S. Rep. Judy Chu of Pasadena wants to solve litter, graffiti and safety problems in the San Gabriel Mountains and Angeles National Forest by including them in a new national recreation area that would also include urban foothills and the San Gabriel River and Rio Hondo corridors.
The U.S. Parks Service studied the concept and concluded the recreation area should not include the mountains or the 655,000-acre forest. Chu disagreed and said she would draft legislation to create the nation's largest federal recreation area.
The rugged San Gabriel Mountains are visited by 3 million people a year, many of whom live within easy driving distance in Southern California. The U.S. Forest Service, which oversees the forest, has little extra money to cope with the problems those visitors create, or to enhance their experience when they get there.
Chu's district includes much of the mountain and forest land that would be part of proposed recreation area. She said one area subject to many complaints of the litter and graffiti is the East Fork of the San Gabriel River along Highway 39 above Duarte.
Graffiti and safety problems
Visitors who pick their way down rocky slopes have illegally dammed the river in places to create large swimming holes. On a recent weekend, kids swung from treetop ropes and jumped 20 feet off cliffsides into the water. Graffiti stained rocks in many places.
Families play in the East Fork of the San Gabriel River.
Cynthia Saucedo of Whittier admired the lizard her young son captured in a water-filled Cheetos bag. She was part of a group of about two dozen relaxing in the shade of a giant tree at the river's edge. She said they come every two weeks or so during the summer months.
She acknowledged the problems the river's popularity has created. "Maybe the area could be more clean, people pick up more after themselves, maybe better trash access, and yes, maybe a stairway down here would be nice," she said.
Rep. Chu blamed the litter, graffiti and safety problems on a lack of recreation dollars. She said at least five hikers have died in falls in the past two years in the Eaton Canyon area of the forest above Pasadena.
Town Hall crowd debates solutions
"This is the same spot that many have fallen down and nothing's been done about it all these years," she told about 300 people gathered at a town hall meeting she called Sept. 7 in Claremont.
The solution, she said, is to include the Angeles National Forest and San Gabriel Mountains in a national recreation area. It would also include portions of the Chino-Puente Hills. The city of Rancho Cucamonga sent a council member and fire chief to the meeting to request the area extend east to include Cucamonga Canyon.
A national recreation area, she said, "could make sure that this area has better signage, that the dangerous areas are cordoned off and that there are rangers are on patrol. It could make sure that people don't die."
Instead, the Parks Service, which is part of the Department of the Interior, suggested merely partnering with the Forest Service (an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) to improve recreation and safety. The report also recommended making a San Gabriel recreation area a sub-division of the Santa Monica National Recreation Area.
Those recommendations surprised Chu. "This option excludes the mountains, where there are so many challenges. This runs contrary to the overwhelming support for including the mountains in an NRA."
"The bottom line is that the Park Service will not have authority over the land, you will. It is your land and your water and it will remain that way," she told the town hall gathering.
Some concerned about land rights
The proposal to put the Angeles National Forest in a recreation area worries users of off-highway vehicle and those concerned that a federal recreation designation might limit their property rights.
It also concerned Deb Burgess.
On a recent day, she led her mule and burro pack train up out of a canyon to Chantry Flat above Arcadia. They had dropped off lumber and supplies at some private cabins on Forest Service land and were headed to the barn. On the hike out, the burros carried trash and empty propane tanks.
Initially, Burgess feared Rep. Chu's plan might interfere with her and her neighbors' grandfathered ownership of houses on federal land. But at the same time, she said she was frustrated that more of the $100,000 worth of Adventure Pass parking permits she sells on behalf of the Forest Service at her Chantry Flat store is not spent directly on maintenance and ranger patrols for that part of the forest.
She wants better trail signs and more ranger, particularly on weekends when as many as a thousand people crowd the trails.
"So, I've changed my assessment, it would be interesting to see what the legislation actually is," Burgess said.
That is the next step: Rep. Chu says she is writing legislation to fold nearly 700,000 acres of land — the Angeles National Forest, the local rivers and urban foothills — into the San Gabriel National Recreation Area. If approved, it would be one of the nation's largest.