At $5 Million, This is a Deal: Jumpstarting the Restoration of Big Tujunga Canyon

Students from John Marshall High School remove invasive Smilo grass as part of the watershed restoration project in Big Tjunga Canyon. | Photo: Courtesy Edward Belden
Students from John Marshall High School remove invasive Smilo grass as part of the watershed restoration project in Big Tjunga Canyon. | Photo: Courtesy Edward Belden

For more than a century, America's National Forests have proved an environmental gift and cultural treasure -- our spectacular backyard. But this system of public lands, which encompasses193 million acres from California to Maine, Florida to Alaska, has become increasingly vulnerable to the cumulative consequences of past management practices, catastrophic disturbances, and a warming climate.

To restore resiliency to these imperiled terrain, the National Forest Foundation (NFF), which Congress designated in 1991 as the official non-profit partner of the U.S. Forest Service, has launched a now-or-never campaign that identifies places of greatest need; with a 1:1 matching contribution from the U.S. Forest Service, it has committed to raise millions of dollars to underwrite these lands' restoration.

One of the selected sites is the Angeles National Forest, which at 1000 square miles constitutes Southern California's biggest playground, accounting for more than 70% of open space in greater Los Angeles. As vital as the recreation opportunities it provides, this urban national forest, draped across the San Gabriel Mountains with its tall peaks, steep-sloped terrain, and sharp-cut canyons, also captures much-needed precipitation blowing off the Pacific; perhaps one-third of the region's water supply sheets off the Angeles.

The life-giving watershed is in trouble, however, in part as a consequence of the 2009 Station Fire. Ignited by an arsonist late that August, it blew up into the largest conflagration in the recorded history of Los Angeles. Torching approximately 250 square miles during its two-month-long fiery run, it burned through chaparral shrubland, oak woodlands, and up-elevation mixed pine forests.

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Particularly hard hit were riparian and terrestrial ecosystems within the upper reaches of the Los Angeles River, including those in Big Tujunga Canyon. Depending on the location within the 97,000-acre canyon, the Station Fire charred upwards of 95% of the subwatershed's vegetation.

As every Angeleno knows, or should understand, wildland fire comes with a one-two punch: after flames scorch the earth during the now-extended spring-to-fall fire season, the unstable soil can wash away in a hurry if lashed by winter storms.

That pattern was manifest during the colder, rainy months of late 2009, early 2010. According to the NFF, the post-storm sediment discharge from Big Tujunga Canyon alone "proved to be three to four times higher than normal, and annual sediment yield increased to levels 15-25 times higher than normal during the first year post-fire."

Those super-heavy debris-and-rock flows, with the battering force of concrete slurry, gouged out creek- and riverbeds, rampaged through sensitive habitat, and damaged regional water quality, jeopardizing the life chances of the Santa Ana speckled dace, Arroyo chub, Santa Ana sucker, and the western pond turtle.

Some of these harms will be repaired through a slow process of natural regeneration, as has occurred over the millennia. Yet so dependent is Los Angeles on this canyon for water, so vital are its recreational offerings -- more than one million visitors annually walk its trails, camp, fish, or simply rest beneath the shade of a spreading oak -- and so invaluable is the biodiversity that it sustains, that the NFF, the Forest Service, and a host of local partners have agreed to raise $5 million to accelerate the restoration of Big Tujunga.

This substantial sum, half of which will come from matching funds from the Forest Service, should help the partnership begin to tackle some critical projects. For example, most of the canyon's recreational structures, picnic areas, and other sites were damaged if not destroyed in the fire, and funds to rebuild these and the battered trail system, as well as enhance the educational outreach possibilities inherent in this hands-on work, are key elements of the campaign.

Dollars are also targeted at rebuilding the canyon's streams and creeks that were seriously degraded in the fire and post-fire floods, compromising the ability of native aquatic and land-based species to recover to pre-fire numbers. Likewise, money is needed to regenerate the 43,000 acres of forestland that the Station Fire consumed, 11,000 of which are expected to convert to grassland without intervention.

The driving concern behind these restoration plans is the very real fear, with on-the-ground evidence to back it up, that invasive plants and animals have taken and will continue to take advantage of the fire's disruptive force to establish a competitive advantage within Big Tujunga Canyon. Once so rooted, they can alter the landscape in meaningful ways that might well be amplified by shifts in temperature and precipitation expected with a changing climate.

Although not all of these alterations can be countered or controlled, the NFF/USFS initiative will underwrite the removal of noxious weed populations by hand, and by chemical and mechanical means and the replanting of diverse age classes of shrub and tree to increase the landscape's resilience.

This multi-layered project will also have profound downstream implications for the 13 million people who live within a one-hour drive of the Angeles National Forest and who draw some of their potable water from its flow. Regenerating these upcountry watersheds, the NFF observes, is "critical to the health and well-being of the entire Los Angeles basin."

That same claim can be made about watersheds throughout the national forest system. Indeed, the Angeles is one of 14 projects that constitute the NFF's Treasured Landscapes, Unforgettable Experiences campaign. Its ambitious goal is to rebuild the resiliency of these sites' ecosystems, strengthen the communities that lie adjacent to them, and increase public support for the lands themselves and the many species that inhabit them.

Most compelling is the broad, encompassing, and collaborative character of this initiative, for it marks an important shift in policy. Until the 1980s, public-lands management was a top-down process; decisions were made with little public consultation or input. The Forest Service and other federal and state agencies were frequently criticized for stewarding these lands without accounting for alternative insights or knowledge, which in turn led to grassroots protests and legal challenges in the courts.

Beginning with the National Environmental Policy Act (1970) and a series of other public-access initiatives that the federal courts have upheld, and driven by budgetary shortfalls that have hampered careful management of our national forests, the Forest Service has become increasingly open to private-sector partnerships and community engagement. The NFF has reinforced these efforts by supporting hundreds of community-based non-profits working with the Forest Service to enhance civil society.

To nurture these engagements on the Angeles National Forest and elsewhere, the NFF has deployed what it calls the Conservation Connect program. Designed to serve community-based groups and Forest Service employees committed to collaborative restoration, it offers peer learning, technical assistance and training, and the facilitation of cooperative endeavors. In short, Conservation Connect provides a full tool kit of shared knowledge.

This approach builds on some of the Forest Service's founding principles. In 1905, Forest Service chief Gifford Pinchot, argued that these remarkable forests and grasslands were "made for and owned by the people," an argument that had significant policy implications. "If the National Forests are going to accomplish anything worthwhile," he asserted, "the people must know all about them and must take a very active role in their management."

Through the Treasured Landscapes program, the NFF is updating Pinchot's principled conviction, and one of its prime beneficiaries will be Big Tujunga Canyon and the Angeles National Forest -- Southern California's natural inheritance and cultural legacy.

A portion of this commentary first appeared in Your National Forests magazine in the summer-fall 2013 issue.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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