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On the Wild Side

In the San Gabriel Mountains

Hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains with Wayne Steinmetz is an exercise in humility. It isn't just the brisk pace that the retired chemistry professor sets as he pushes along trails that are dry as dust or slick with snow, though his stamina is intimidating. More striking is his encyclopedic knowledge of this rough landscape's geology and history, its surprising biological diversity; he knows its life and lore. Ask him a question about the forest's shifting composition, and he will unravel its ecological complexity. Lose your way along any number of the steep trails that thread up Mount Baldy, and he can give you step-by-step directions for how to regain your path.His principled commitment to preserving these rugged lands' integrity is one reason why I am hoping against hope that the "Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests Protection Act," which Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) introduced last week, gains congressional approval. If passed, it would expand the Cucamonga and Sheep Mountain wilderness areas by 18,000 acres, protecting them from development and limiting human activity within them; anglers and backpackers, mountain lions and black bears would be the big winners.

Naturally this legislation is only a partial fix: wilderness advocates had pressed for a larger swath more fully to preserve unique riparian features, endangered wildlife and old-growth forests of chaparral, oak, and pine. Yet if successful, this half measure could go a long way toward establishing the necessary political context for additional designations to come, no small achievement in Southern California, where four national forests--the Los Padres, Angeles, San Bernardino, and Cleveland--drape across the region's mountainous extent.

The pending legislation is a vital reminder too of why these public lands were created in the first place. Following the passage of the 1891 Forest Reserve Act, which granted the president the authority to carve national forests out of the public domain in the west, Presidents Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, and William McKinley designated upwards of 45 million acres as forest reserves; most of these lands received greater federal protection through land-use regulations designed to prevent their continued despoliation from intense grazing, logging and mining.

Such was not the case in the Southland. Its woods were never logged as heavily as those along the Rockies; and sheep, which John Muir decried as "hoofed locusts," never chewed up its grasslands as they did in Oregon and Utah. Instead the Southern California national forests (all founded between 1892 and 1893) had a different purpose: to defend, restore, and manage local watersheds, notably the headwaters of the Los Angeles, San Gabriel and Santa Ana rivers. Even then, with a significantly smaller population base, downstream interests--conservationists, citrus farmers and business leaders--recognized how much this semi-arid region's prosperity depended on a clear rush of clean water.

Today one-third of Los Angeles County's water flows off the Angeles National Forest, so it's no surprise that its contemporary defenders make the same claim. As one ardent supporter of the Dreier-sponsored act told Californiawild.org, these "unspoiled rivers still need to be permanently preserved for future generations."

This heartfelt sentiment aside, it will be surprising if any wilderness legislation gets through the current Republican-controlled House of Representatives. When recently President Obama directed the Bureau of Land Management to denote more lands as wilderness, a dramatic break from his predecessor's anti-environmental policies, western conservatives went ballistic. The GOP immediately promised congressional investigations into the "radical extremists" who they alleged had the president's ear. Growled Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah): "This is little more than an early Christmas present to the far left extremists who oppose the multiple use of our nation's public lands."

Tempting though it is to dismiss Bishop's intemperance and his knee-jerk rhetoric that the "West is being abused," keep in mind that he is the new chair of the House subcommittee on public-lands; he controls which legislation makes it to the House floor. Having helped ignite the current uproar in the region over the possible increase in the number of protected wildlands, Bishop is highly unlikely to reverse course and let the "Angeles and San Bernardino National Forest Protection Act" out of committee.

That will be a blow to the protection of LA County's water quality as well as to Wayne Steinmetz and the many others who love this jagged terrain's raw beauty, our home ground.

The photo used in this post is by Flickr user frazgo. It is used under a Creative Commons LIcense.

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