Bringing the San Gabriel Mountains Closer to the People


Paco Serrano, a Highland Park youth advocate with the Anahuak Youth Sports Association, will drive three hours to go hiking and camping in Lake Isabella in the heart of the Kern River Valley, but he has never been to the Angeles National Forest or the San Gabriel Mountains, less than an hour away. Serrano is now working to support a proposed national recreation area there. "I think it's important to take children to the San Gabriel Mountains so they can see that nature is free to them. They will begin to appreciate the mountains for themselves. Many people in my community don't know of the opportunities provided in the San Gabriel Mountains."

The San Gabriels represent about 78% of the open space in Los Angeles County, the largest "urban" forest in the nation. Ten million people live within an hour's drive, with opportunities for recreation and physical activity, as well as education, spirituality, and respite from urban stresses. The San Gabriel Watershed is a critical source of clean air, habitat protection, and clean water, providing about a third of the drinking water for local communities.

While the San Gabriel Valley is ethnically and economically diverse, the visitors to the Angeles National Forest are overwhelmingly white. According to the United States Forest Service, Latinos are nearly 50% of the area's population, but account for only 11% of the visitors to the forest. Similarly, Asians are 25% of the area's population, but are less than 5% of the visitors. Only 1% of Angeles visitors are African American.

The San Gabriel Mountains Forever Coalition is organizing a regional and national push to diversify access to and support for the Angeles National Forest and San Gabriel Mountains through a national recreation area (NRA) to be managed cooperatively between federal, state and local agencies. NRAs include urban parks that combine scarce open spaces with the preservation of significant historic resources and important natural areas in locations that can provide outdoor recreation for large numbers of people.

According to Daniel Rossman, a member of the Coalition and Regional Associate with The Wilderness Society, "the NRA would go through the heart of the San Gabriel Valley, incorporating the San Gabriel River and the Puente Chino Hills State Park. It would leverage resources to address the open space needs of the community and promote a connected trails system. It could support a transit-to-trails program providing public transportation to outdoor recreation. And our vision includes a Conservation Corps program to offer year-round employment for regional youth and returning military veterans."

Rossman said NPS would spend $2 to $4 million to create the NRA. The United States Forest Service would also spend resources to manage its own lands and resources in the Angeles and adjoining San Bernardino National Forest. In the past the USFS has prioritized fire control rather than recreation, leading to rundown trails and facilities.

Where will the money come from? "Federal appropriations. Other NRA designations have been able to leverage private sources of funding. Such a designation would help support public and private funding in the region and better leverage resources among agencies," according to Rossman.

Families enjoying the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. Photo by Andrew M. Harvey used with permission.
Families enjoying the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. Photo by Andrew M. Harvey used with permission.

The need to improve public health helps build support for the NRA. According to Nelson Trujillo, a resident of East Los Angeles, "There is no safe place for outdoor recreation where I live. It's dangerous. I think physical activity will improve the health of my children, keep them safe, healthy and out of trouble." Throughout much of the San Gabriel Valley, 30% or more of all children are overweight or obese. Outdoor programs could also provide positive alternatives to gangs, crime, drugs and violence.

Why are visitation rates by people of color so low to the Angeles? That is a pattern often seen in national forest and park lands. According to a recent study of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area - one of the most visited national parks - traditionally absent groups expressed frustration with limited physical access, subtle racism, and general exclusion from the culture of parks as reasons they avoid these public spaces.

Professor Nina Roberts, one of the authors of the study, explains, "Research over a span of 50 years exploring precisely that question has shifted focus from marginalization due to cost and transportation, to a more cultural understanding of not feeling comfortable or welcome by other visitors or park staff." The San Francisco State academic adds, "Policies covering what is permissible or considered appropriate to do in these areas may not fit cultural preferences and patterns. In the last 10 to 15 years, for example, agencies have come to recognize the need for large group camp-outs and picnic sites to accommodate extended families. Picnics, outdoor sports, throwing a football around, playing soccer or other social activities may be limited, with people often told to get off the land." People of color disproportionately visit parks in large family groups and for active recreation. According to Roberts, "agencies are trying to do a better job with community engagement. We will see a better level of comfort as a result." But history is still real today, she points out.

Church of Epiphany enjoying a hike in the Angeles National Forest. Photo courtesy of the Sierra Club.
Church of Epiphany enjoying a hike in the Angeles National Forest. Photo courtesy of the Sierra Club.

In the 1920s and after, racially restrictive covenants prevented people of color from owning or using property at Lake Arrowhead, a mountain lake that lies in the San Bernardino Mountains just outside the proposed NRA area. The federal government traded away land on the lake for land in the woods. Today there is no public access to Lake Arrowhead, as private mansions and businesses ring the lake in what ironically is known as "the Beverly Hills of the Mountains." In the last decade, the Forest Service faced employment discrimination suits by women, Latinos and African Americans that led to programs to diversify staff and visitors.

Pedro Chavez, a resident of Glassell Park, favors signage and programs in English and Spanish in the NRA "because there are many people who don't speak English." A November 2010 poll by the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Times found that Latino and Asian voters throughout California are significantly more concerned about core environmental issues, including global warming and pollution, than non-Hispanic whites. This study allowed voters to answer questions in their native language. This suggests that culturally appropriate programs could engage more visitors.

Robert Bracamontes, a member of the Acjachemen Nation, Juaneno Tribe, urged cabinet level federal officials to include Native Americans in the planning process at a public hearing in the summer of 2010. "The most important message here is that we are on Tongva land. They are the people who should be making decisions about their land and the sacred sites on it." The Haramokngna American Indian Cultural Center in the Angeles National Forest features a museum, gallery, and activity space. Other cultural and historical sites in the study area and in or near the proposed NRA include the Juan de Bautista National Historic Trail, the Old Spanish National Historic Trail, the grave of Owen Brown, who took part in the slave rebellion at Harper's Ferry, and the sites of WWII Japanese relocation assembly centers at the Santa Anita racetrack and the Pomona County fairgrounds.

The 1930 Olmsted plan, Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region, called for including Angeles National Forest and San Gabriel River as part of a comprehensive web of parks, playgrounds, mountains, beaches, rivers and transportation. A 2004 study by USC documented that there is no realistic way of reaching the Angeles Forest from Union Station via transit. A transit-to-trails program would help.

Alternative D from the San Gabriel Watershed and Mountains Special Resources Study. Click to enlarge.
Alternative D from the San Gabriel Watershed and Mountains Special Resources Study. Click to enlarge.

In November 2011 NPS released a draft study called the San Gabriel Watershed and Mountains Special Resources Study, and has extended the public comment period to February 13, 2012.

The Coalition supports an improved version of Alternative D (see map on right) from the study simply because "it does more to improve recreational opportunity for the region and is the environmentally preferred alternative," according to Juana Torres, a member of the Coalition and regional organizer with the Sierra Club.

There has been some opposition to the NRA based on a stated fear of large government and claimed federal land grab, but "our vision is to ensure that the land that we already own, as taxpayers, meets our local needs. The community overwhelmingly supports this vision," reports Torres.

The City Project and diverse allies who are in the Coalition are submitting recommendations in support of Alternative D which includes equal access to public resources under equal justice laws and principles, and adequate funding for all. The National Park Service has an opportunity to create a best practice example in the San Gabriel Mountains of a balanced urban national recreation area with passive recreation like hiking in the mountains and active recreation including sports fields in the flat lands that serves the diverse needs of people of color, environmental justice, and environmental quality for all.

People who would like to weigh in can write to the National Park Service in their own words, or respond to a questionnaire on the NPS web site.

San Gabriel Mountains Forever Coalition at America's Great Outdoors Listening Session, Whitter Narrows. Photo courtesy of SGMF
San Gabriel Mountains Forever Coalition at America's Great Outdoors Listening Session, Whitter Narrows. Photo courtesy of SGMF

Top photo courtesy of Fabiola Lao for SGMF.