Tens of thousands of acres in and around the San Gabriel Valley are proposed to become part of the National Park Service, according to a plan put forth to Congress last week. It's the featured recommendation in a 10-year study of the San Gabriel watershed and mountains to identify if any part of the area warrants inclusion within the system.
Under the proposal, a 50,000-acre National Recreation Area would border foothill areas of the San Gabriel Mountains, down the Rio Hondo and upper San Gabriel rivers, and over the western areas of the Puente Hills. Like the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in and west of Los Angeles, the new unit's boundary would surround a mix of already-protected open space lands owned by a variety of government agencies and private property, which would only be turned into public open space if donated or purchased from a willing seller.
About 37 percent, or over 18,000 acres, are currently protected, including miles of hiking trails like those found in the Puente Hills and Claremont Hillsides Wilderness Park, bike paths such as the 17-mile Emerald Necklace that will loop cyclists around the two rivers, and historical features like Pio Pico State Historic Park.
The plan also calls for the National Park Service to help nearby communities -- by creating and connecting parks to the unit -- and for the abutting Angeles National Forest to receive "additional recognition, tools, and support... to steward watershed resources and ecosystems and improve recreational opportunities." Being one of the busiest National Forests in the country, it's not exactly left in pristine condition, but this could mean better funding for environmental and recreational improvements and gives the ability to partner with nonprofits and accept donations from philanthropic organizations.
But another recommendation in the proposal has many people disappointed -- or at least confused. Close to 5,000 public comments were received during the planning process; 95 percent of them supported a proposal that also had the National Recreation Area boundary extending over 415,000 acres of the San Gabriel Mountains within the Angeles National Forest. That didn't happen. Instead, something called Service First authority was recommended.
"I want answers from the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service as to why this hybrid came about," Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) told the Los Angeles Times.
Service First authorizes the Forest and National Park services to collaboratively work together. That means visitors to Eaton Canyon in the Angeles could find a national park ranger teaching people about the waterfall, or hikers making their way to the tallest point in the Santa Monicas may find a forest ranger up there with them. It also opens the door to the transferring of funds between the two agencies.
So why not propose Service First in the first place? The program, as its spelled out today, did not exist when the National Park Service put out their draft recommendations -- in fact, Congress enacted it just a couple of months later. "We weren't aware Service First was headed to permanent legislation," explained Martha Crusius, a national park program chief. But she believes the program, mixed with the other recommendations, will accomplish the goals of a National Recreation Area "in a more efficent and effective manner" without the need for overlapping jurisdictions. "From the start, there has been concern having a Park Service boundary around a Forest Service area -- that generates confusion with the public," she added.
Char Miller, a KCET columnist and Director of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, agrees that Service First is a better approach, but he is still worried it can evolve. "I see this in historic terms as a revival of a rivalrous relationship between the Park Service and Forest Service that sets a dangerous precedent, and it revokes an agreement long established since the early 1960s."
Beginning the 1920s, national forestland started to become national parkland at an alarming rate. "It's not incidental that most national parks are wrapped by national forests," said Miller. Think, for example, Grand Canyon, Olympic, and North Cascades national parks, the latter which beget that compromise between two cabinet secretaries during the John F. Kennedy administration.
"Neither Department will initiate unilaterally new proposals to change the status of lands under jurisdiction of the other Department," the agreement stated.
Still, some are pleased that something to expand open space in the area is going forward. "The proposed expansion," wrote The City Project's Robert Garcia in his KCET column Green Justice, "would go a long way to ensure access to green space and better health for park poor, income poor communities."
Add to that Casey Schreiner at Modern Hiker: "Although I would love the entire Angeles National Forest to get the increased recognition and protection that comes with being a National Recreation Area, the fact that it's getting their help and more funding is great."
And at the end of the day, the proposal is just a proposal. It's up to Congress for what to do, and that could be doing nothing or voting to create exactly what it recommended or changing the plan into something different. Whatever happens, the employees of the National Park Service and Forest Service stand by to fulfill those marching orders.
- "Bringing the San Gabriel Mountains Closer to the People" by Robert Garcia in Green Justice
- "The San Gabriels: A National Forest? A National Park? Does it Matter?" by Char Miller in Golden Green