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How California Got Its First National Forest

An archival black and white photo of a San Gabriel Timberland Reserve ranger sitting atop a mule. He's wearing a collared long sleeve shirt and a wide-brim hat. The insignia on his collar reads, "S.G.R.," which stands for San Gabriel Reserve. The ranger and the mule stand among trees.
A San Gabriel Timberland Reserve ranger mounted on a mule, circa 1900 — around the time ranger forces were deployed to enforce the new law of conservation put in place by President Harrison that preserved 555,520 acres of the San Gabriel Mountains from entry or settlement. | California Historical Society Collection / USC Digital Library
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    The following post is republished in partnership with USC Libraries.


    For as long as Basque shepherds tended the flocks of Southern California, a seasonal rhythm governed their work. Every spring, as the lowland valleys browned, they would drive their flocks into the greener pastures of the San Gabriel Mountains. Up they would climb until, as summer peaked, they reached the highest alpine meadows. Then began the slow descent of autumn, leaving behind them a wake of pulverized soil, burnt ponderosas and denuded slopes. As Jean Tihista, a 34-year-old native of the Pyrenees, drove his 3,000 sheep into the Sierra Madre high country in the summer of 1893, he might not have considered how his annual rhythm threatened the irrigation-based society of the valleys below.

    But President Harrison had. Two years earlier, Benjamin Harrison's whistle-stop tour of California took him through the San Bernardino, Pomona and San Gabriel valleys — a belt of orange groves watered by mountain streams. When his train stopped briefly in Pomona, the president had endured a night of clattering through the deserts of the Southwest. "You will surely excuse me from extended remarks," he told the assembled thousands. "I have been subjected to such a strain that my brain needs irrigation to put it in trim again." At the mention of irrigation, the crowd roared.

    The cheers might have made an impression. On Dec. 20, 1892, Harrison signed a proclamation reserving 555,520 acres of the San Gabriel Mountains from entry or settlement, effectively creating California's first national forest. Designed to halt pasturing, logging and other activities that might transform mountain brooks into raging torrents, Harrison's action answered the pleas of Citrus Belt irrigationists, forestry expert Abbot Kinney, the county board of supervisors and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

    Even with those powerful forces aligned behind it, however, the San Gabriel Timberland Reserve — later rechristened as the Angeles National Forest — struggled in its early years, surviving devastating wildfires and a scheme to introduce a hundred elk from Yellowstone. Its understaffed ranger force struggled, too, to enforce the new law of conservation. Nevertheless, the law did manage to catch up with Jean Tihista and his 3,000 sheep. Arrested by federal authorities, the shepherd was hauled into federal court and convicted of violating the president's order. On Dec. 20, 1893 — exactly one year after President Harrison established the reserve — Tihista was sentenced to 300 days in jail, ensuring that his seasonal rhythm would end, or at least skip a beat.

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