The San Gabriels: A National Forest? A National Park? Does it Matter?

In the Angeles National Forest. | Photo: puck90/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The Angeles National Forest is poised to get the ax. There are a lot of hands gripping that particular handle, too.

The National Park Service (NPS) is eager to swing into action, laying claim to a large chunk of the 655,387-acre forest now managed by the U.S. Forest Service, with the avowed goal of turning these lands into a National Recreation Area.

In a draft report entitled the San Gabriel Watershed and Mountains Special Resource Study, which has taken six years to write and cost taxpayers $500,000, the most expansive land-transfer option is the one the Park Service is most interested in pursuing:

Map of the Alternative D area. See the larger version in the PDF report on page 18.

Local congressionals are also falling over themselves to advocate for this project in general, and Alternative D in particular. So are national environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, and the grassroots coalition, San Gabriel Mountains Forever.

Government officials in the affluent foothill communities that lie along the 210 Freeway and struggling valley cities through which I-10 runs have voiced their wholehearted support; they are anticipating an increase in recreational opportunities and tourist dollars. Many seem convinced as well that the proposed change in management, with the putative enhancements for outdoor exercise, will rein in obesity and diabetes.

Even the Forest Service has been a full cooperating partner in the Park Service-conducted assessment of this possibility. Reportedly, the national-forest agency, located within the Department of Agriculture, may not be opposed to a shift in management to its colleagues over in the Interior Department.

So why am I skeptical of the process? Why suspect that when the Park Service decides, as it will, in favor of the San Gabriel National Recreation Area, that this transformation will not be as life-changing as its true believers believe?

Because the numbers do not add up -- and they do not because not a single one of those agitating for the transfer has put pencil to paper, setting down the precise costs, immediate and future, expected and unanticipated.

What we have received so far is a lot of blue-sky assertions masquerading as hard-nosed accounting. Arguing that the new recreational area will be a "Catalyst for Healthy Recreational Opportunities," San Gabriel Mountains Forever asserts:

Where will the funds come from to provide those listed (and unlisted) services that the non-profit group dangles before our eyes? It doesn't say.

Gordon Bonser, a paid consultant for groups supporting the transfer, is confident he knows that answer, telling the Whittier Daily News in November 2011: "The Forest Service doesn't get the funding the way the Parks Service does -- from inside the Department of the Interior. For whatever reason, people are real sentimental about parks so they (NPS) get a much more direct funding stream." And then he flung this jab at his former employer; the Forest Service is "like the little cow that is last in line at the feeding trough."

However delightfully snarky Bonser's comments may be, they are no more data rich than the assumptions of San Gabriel Mountains Forever, yet this is the rhetoric that area politicians are eagerly peddling as they hunt for votes this November.

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At public sessions over the last two months, for instance, Representative Judy Chu (D-El Monte), who is expected easily to win the new 27th Congressional District in which much of the proposed recreational area would lie, repeatedly compared the Forest Service's lack of fiscal and human resources to the National Park Service's more robust budgets and staffing.

As a result, she told voters in bright-green Claremont, the San Gabriel mountains have been poorly maintained, reflected in "overgrown trails, little signage and too few trash receptacles," Her cure: "the area should become part of the National Parks system." Chu has promised to make this happen.

How accurate are these damning budgetary claims that undergird the arguments of those proposing the new recreation area? The only way to find out is to go to the source, the omnipotent House Appropriations Committee which determines the outlays for the entire federal government. Because it holds the purse strings, one of its former members rightly described it as "Congress within Congress"; others less reverently dub it the College of Cardinals.

A trail in the Angeles National Forest's Chantry Flats area. | Photo: hermitsmoores/Flickr/Creative Commons License

For the nation's land-management agencies the committee's power is manifest through the deliberations of an awkwardly named subcommittee for the "Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies."

Its clunky name comes with a history. In 1905, when the U.S. Forest Service was established as an agency within the Department of Agriculture (USDA), Congress also transferred to it millions of acres once located in the Department of the Interior's General Land Office, including the rugged terrain that would become the Angeles National Forest. In its wisdom, Congress did not move the source of these lands' funding to the relevant USDA subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee. The Forest Service's money, in short, comes from the same pot as the Park Service's.

Because the two agencies are funded through the same subcommittee, comparing their fiscal resources is straightforward. Consider their total budget authorities for 2012: the Park Service secured $2,579,600,000; the Forest Service's take was $4,595,300,000. Does this substantial disparity in the agencies' funding -- two billion dollars -- suggest that the Park Service is the relative fat cat? Or that the Forest Service is a rib-thin cow, always the last to muzzle up to the trough? It beggars the imagination that anyone can make this claim, let alone report it, with a straight face.

That face gets even harder to maintain after reading over the proposed 2013 budget, which was reported out of the Appropriations Committee in late June; while there is a stopgap funding measure in place until March 2013, the House appropriators' proposal for the rest of the year would bless the Forest Service with a two-percent budgetary increase, adding $86 million to its coffers. This boost was less than President Obama had proposed, but among its land-management peers -- the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Park Service -- only the Forest Service has secured a bump over last year.

By contrast, the Park Service received a curious pat-on-the-back. Observing that the agency "will be 100 years old in 2016," and applauding its "historic ten-year effort to enhance the national parks leading up to this historic celebration," the committee offered its continued support for "this effort and the $2,445,198,000 recommended will help the Service prepare for a second century of conservation, environmental stewardship and recreation benefiting millions of visitors from throughout the world. In spite of extraordinary fiscal challenges, the Committee has provided funding sufficient to manage NPS units nationwide without disruptions to operations."

That last phrase is the puzzler, for House appropriators actually cut the Park Service's budget by more than five percent from 2012. How can that be anything but disruptive?

Among the hardest hit line items are two that are of particular relevance to those clamoring for the creation of a San Gabriel National Recreation Area. The NPS recreational account was slashed by 9% from the previous year; worse, according the Congressional Research Service, "most of the decrease in the bill relative to both the FY2012 appropriation and the FY2013 request would be for Land Acquisition and State Assistance." Those dreaming that the Park Service will spray a hose-full of cash on the San Gabriels and into the surrounding communities might want to damp down that fantasy.

Regardless of how the 2013 budget negotiations are ultimately resolved; irrespective of the outcomes of the 2012 election, there is another caveat the activists pushing for a Park Service-managed recreation area in the San Gabriels do not appreciate or are willfully ignoring. Even if the land transfer occurs -- and surely the Park Service is gunning for it to happen in 2016 to celebrate its centennial and the return of former Interior lands back to the mother department -- it is unwise to bank on "new" money coming with new management.

Above: San Gabriel River Bike Trail in 2004. Below: North Fork San Gabriel River, Angeles National Forest. | Photos: Courtesy National Park Service
Above: San Gabriel River Bike Trail in 2004. Below: North Fork San Gabriel River, Angeles National Forest. | Photos: Courtesy National Park Service

That's not how budgetary politics operate in Congress. Whatever has been appropriated for the management of the Angeles National Forest will be appropriated for the San Gabriel National Recreation Area. Don't expect a special earmark, either -- for the present those boondoggles are a thing of the past.

Finances will only get more flattened should some form of joint custody get hammered out, such that the Park Service and Forest Service are co-trustees managing different, if abutting, parcels. They'll get more complicated still when a fire erupts in the conflagration-prone mountains: whose crews will cut the fire lines, whose budget will pay for their arduous labor, and how will this spike in spending be compensated or equalized?

This tangled scenario in fact is likely to occur. In its September update of its draft report, the Park Service indicates that "All of the alternatives considered in the draft special resource study propose continued management of the Angeles National Forest by the U.S. Forest Service." To figure out the cost-sharing required for such a bifurcated entity will require serious horse-trading among the members of the Appropriations Committee, an ugly process that rarely produces additional dollars, especially in budget-tight years.

It remains an open question, then, whether an NPS-managed recreation area would be an improvement over the current national forest. Neither agency currently has the requisite funds to sustain the forests, meadows, rivers, and beaches, trails, cabins, and lodges it stewards across the country. Like the heavily used Angeles National Forest, the Park Service's major urban recreation areas, including the Santa Monica Mountains, Golden Gate, Delaware Water Gap, Lake Mead, and Gateway, are showing a lot of wear and tear, direct consequences of years of declining budgets, staff reductions, and deferred maintenance; the same situation is bedeviling the management of our wildlife refuges, conservation preserves, and iconic parks. We may proclaim that the public lands are national treasures, but we treat them like dirt.

Nothing will alter this situation unless we mount a serious national discussion about these lands' real value, human and environmental. Our debate over the future of the San Gabriels and the Angeles National Forest could stimulate this much-needed larger conversation. But only if we ditch the hyperbolic rhetoric, confront the harsh budgetary climate, and admit that political tradeoffs will compromise whatever choice we make.

If we stay the ax and start telling the truth, we'll be in a better position to make decent public policy.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

Even if you break this down on a gross dollar-per-acre cost the differences are small: USFS has roughly $24 to spend on each of its 193 million acres; the Park Service has $30 for its 84.4 million.

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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