After stopping work almost a decade ago, the group of agencies that care for most of the Santa Monica Mountains are picking up where they left off when it comes to trails. The question is what to do with current and future trails for hikers, bikers, and horseback riders and how their use would potentially affect the environment and archaeological resources.
The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is administered by the National Park Service, but its boundaries capture more than 150,000 acres of land, including city and state parks, as well as private land. All told, there's over 500 miles of public trails in this congressionally designated recreation area that runs from Runyon Canyon in the Hollywood Hills to the beaches of Santa Monica, Malibu, and Ventura County (see a map here).
Reading through the affidavit in support of charging the three men accused of starting the Colby Fire last week, one thing seems clear: their gut told them it wasn't okay to light a fire. Based on interviews with investigators, a fire was nonetheless lit. Some quotes:
- Clifford Henry, Jr. "said that he knew it was dangerous to have a fire in dry grass and he has been camping since he was a child" and "stated that it was crazy to have a campfire where such dry grass and dry wood was on the ground." In a later interview, "he stated that they had to go high up the trail to hide their campfire to prevent the police from coming. He believed that if they were caught with the campfire, they would be fined or kicked out of the area since it was illegal to have a campfire there."
- Jonathan Jarrell "acknowledged that California weather had been warm and with minimal rains" and "wasn't sure if campfires were allowed because they ... were not actually in a campground."
- Steven Aguirre "admitted that they knew they weren't supposed to have a campfire, but no one opposed having one."
It's been widely reported that the three guys who are said to have started the Colby Fire were not camping in a designated campground. That's true, but one should not come to the conclusion that it was an illegal campsite. Dispersed camping -- that is, camping in a spot you find suitable outside official campgrounds -- is allowed throughout Angeles National Forest, with the exception of closed areas such as Williamson Rock (to protect an endangered frog) and the Station Fire recovery zone.
For better or worse, such a policy exemplifies one of the biggest differences between National Forests and National Parks. Generally speaking, forests are public lands where everything is allowed unless it's specifically prohibited; parks are withdrawals of public land where everything is prohibited unless it's specifically allowed.
The Colby Fire as seen from a Glendora city street this morning. | Photo: Courtesy Shelby Arenas
When it became apparent that fire danger in Southern California was going to be very high this week, Angeles National Forest officials wanted to close two specific roads: Glendora Mountain Road and Glendora Ridge Road. So they went ahead and successfully secured a permit from Los Angeles County to close them between Monday and Friday.
It's not that this area is any more dry than the rest of the forest or that the Santa Ana winds blow especially harder. What makes this a problem area are humans. Fires, usually small, are pretty common here because the roads are popular for car and motorcycle races, according to Nathan Judy, a fire information officer with Angeles National Forest. He says it's not uncommon for racers, particularly during nighttime hours, to take a bad turn and go over the side into the brush, igniting a fire.
Despite being closed to vehicular traffic, walking into the forest was still allowed. And that's what happened today with the Colby Fire. Three young men, now in custody, are said to have hiked in to camp and allegedly started the blaze when trying to keep warm this morning.
If there's anyone with the pulse on forest fires in California, it's Stanton Florea. He's the U.S. Forest Service's fire information officer for the state and today he's been keeping tabs on one in Sequoia National Forest. He's not yet concerned about this small and slow-moving blaze -- it may actually have positive environmental effects, he said -- but what's capturing his attention is the white stuff.
Yes, as in snow. This fire is burning through an area with patchy snow. "That's not normal," he said. "There's not much more that speaks to these dry conditions."
California has over 800 miles of ocean coastline, and while I haven't wandered its full length, I've been hard pressed to find a spot that was not worth visiting. Sure, Malibu and Big Sur are the popular and easy-to-please spots, but I'm always the most excited to visit the harder-to-reach and lesser known coastline, from Montaña de Oro to Año Nuevo and beyond.
That's why I was pleased to see that the New York Times featured California's North Coast in its "52 Places to Go in 2014" this weekend (Tahoe and downtown L.A. were also listed).
The North Coast generally refers to the state's three most northern coastal counties -- Mendocino, Humboldt, and Del Norte -- but can include Marin and Sonoma, depending on who you're talking to. Despite the Times' "North Coast" subhead, its text really honed into one specific spot: Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands.
"By no means are we out of the wilderness," Governor Jerry Brown said Thursday as he unveiled his budget proposal for California's next fiscal year. But for the state's financially beleaguered park system, his blueprint may offer some needed, if temporary, relief.
Proposed is an additional $14 million to the Department of Parks and Recreation's operating budget to keep state parks running at current levels, meaning, in theory, that there will be no threat of closures. Governor Brown also proposed a one-time $40 million injection to address the backlog of overdue maintenance throughout the 280 state parks, beaches, and historic properties.
"This $40 million is really refreshing," Parks Director Major General Anthony L. Jackson told reporters in a phone press conference Thursday morning. "We have to start somewhere and this is a great start."
A start it is: the cost of the backlog hovers around $1 billion with roads, sewers, roofs, and more in need of repair.
A holiday week can mean bigger than normal crowds at national parks, and Joshua Tree, which has been growing in popularity over the past several years, is no exception. The park's nine campgrounds have been at capacity since December 23 (four of them have over 100 sites), vehicles were backed up for a mile outside the park's west entrance the day before Christmas, and search and rescue operations noticeably ticked up this week.
It makes sense that with increased visitor numbers come increased injuries and missing hikers, but it doesn't have to be that way. "People are not neccesarily being as safe as they could be," Lorna Shuman, a park spokesperson, told me. She explained that some visitors are not thinking through the dangers the outdoors has in store for them. They're not realizing that when climbing rocks that you can slip and fall, they're not carrying the proper gear for the recreational activity they're doing, and they're not thinking,"Oh, it's getting close to sunset, maybe I should bring a flashlight, or not do this."
2014 will be a big year for notable anniversaries in California's great outdoors. It's the 50th for the Wilderness Act and John Muir Historic Site, the 30th for California's version of the wilderness act, and the 20th for the California Desert Protection Act, which elevated Death Valley and Joshua Tree to national park status while creating Mojave National Preserve.
It will also be the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Grant, a pivotal piece of legislation signed by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War that seeded the birth of not only national parks as we know them today, but the treasured state parks of California as well.
In June of 1864, the grant began the process of transferring Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove into California's hands "for public use, resort, and recreation, and shall be inalienable for all time," giving the state its first state parks. Three months later, Governor Frederick Lowe accepted the grant and appointed the first State Parks Commission.
To that end, California State Parks will be celebrating its sesquicentennial with events throughout 2014. And they're kicking it off on day one with 40 hikes (and one paddle event) at over 30 parks across the state. So you can start making plans now, here's the list in full: