The lure of a San Gabriel Mountains wilderness teeming with wildlife, rivers and breathtaking panoramas is so strong that it now draws 3 million annual visitors whose presence, paradoxically, has overrun the region and degraded its beauty. President Obama will address that reality Friday by announcing that he is designating part of the mountains a national monument.
Over fierce opposition from some mountain communities, Obama will carve out roughly half of the Angeles National Forest to create the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, officials said. The designation will give the U.S. Forest Service greater ability to manage the crowds and protect its natural wonders.
The designation is in many ways recognition of the San Gabriels' enduring enchantment for Californians. As John Muir wrote: "Here come the Gabriel lads and lassies from the commonplace orange groves, to make love and gather ferns and dabble away their hot holidays in the cool pool. They are fortunate in finding so fresh a retreat so near their homes."
Stretching from Santa Clarita to San Bernardino, the San Gabriel watershed is within a 90-minute drive of 17 million people. It provides Los Angeles County with 70% of its open space and roughly 35% of its water. The rugged slopes and canyons are home to rare and endangered species, including Nelson's bighorn sheep, mountain yellow-legged frogs and Santa Ana suckers.
The chronically underfunded Forest Service cannot keep up with the demand. Graffiti, trash, crowding, crime and wildfires are constant problems. Without uniformed rangers on patrol, some visitors toss soiled diapers in the middle of rivers, build illegal fires in parched brush lands and are injured or killed hiking on dangerous trails.
Advocates say that the designation of the 350,000-acre monument will enable the Forest Service to give priority to managing the safety of visitors, protecting natural resources and installing improvements, including new parking areas, restrooms, signs, educational kiosks and trails, federal officials said.
The designation marks the 13th time that Obama has used his executive powers to establish or expand a national monument without congressional approval. He joins a long list of chief executives who see creating a monument as a way to enhance their legacy.
To address opposition by San Bernardino County officials and other critics, the new monument is expected to exclude portions of the San Gabriel range extending into the western reaches of the county, including the mountain communities of Wrightwood and Mt. Baldy. Officials fear that the new status will hamper growth and fire safety.
The monument, however, will include Cucamonga Canyon in San Bernardino County. The canyon suffers from vandalism, graffiti and trash.
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park), who introduced a bill this year to address problems in the 655,000-acre range, said the Obama administration "assured me that the mountains will get the additional resources they desperately need. Those resources could come in the form of an additional ranger, or a budget increase for the Forest Service."
Chu said she regards the monument as a first step. Her legislation would bring wider protections to the range by converting it to a national recreation area co-managed by the Forest Service and the National Park Service.
The monument designation follows an 11-year campaign by San Gabriel Mountains Forever, a coalition of environmental and community groups, including the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and Friends of the River. Supporters insist that the monument will not affect adjacent state, local and private property, or existing recreational uses such as hunting, fishing, hiking and off-roading in designated areas.
But Obama's move is drawing strong criticism from mountain residents and others who say that they have been left in the dark about the effects.
Anticipating the new designation, about 150 people protested in front of Chu's Pasadena office Monday. Many said they were unsure about its potential effects on private property rights, flood control and emergency services.
The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors recently approved a resolution opposing a monument designation in their region, where there still has not been a public meeting held to discuss the issues.
"As far as I know, there's no more money that Congress has available to fund this proposal in some of our most fire-prone areas," said Janice Rutherford, a San Bernardino County Supervisor. "We asked that they leave us the heck out of it."
Residents of Mt. Baldy and Wrightwood are concerned about the ability of local fire agencies to battle wildfires if they are encircled by national monument lands. They also worry about fees and land use restrictions that could stunt local economies.
"We don't want any part of this thing," said Ron Ellingson, owner of a lodge and ski lift business in Mt. Baldy, a hamlet on the eastern edge of the proposed monument lands. "Some people are concerned they're going to put up a gate at the bottom of the road and start charging people to come up here."
Daniel Rossman, a spokesman for San Gabriel Mountains Forever, said such concerns are unfounded.
"The designation will not infringe on existing rights," Rossman said. "It will open up new recreational opportunities without sacrificing the natural beauty of the San Gabriel Mountains."