President Obama is considering a plan to designate the San Gabriel Mountains a national monument, an action intended to address crowding and pollution, and enhance recreational opportunities for a range that lies within an hour's drive for 10 million people.
The cash-strapped U.S. Forest Service currently manages the mountains, where picnic sites and trail heads are typically strewn with trash and broken glass. Without a ranger in sight, some visitors illegally barbecue in the middle of rivers, pitch tents alongside narrow roads and are injured or killed hiking on dangerous trails.
Under a national monument designation, the Forest Service would give priority to recreation, garbage and graffiti removal, traffic, signage, hiking trails and education programs. The new status would also provide more protection for wildlife and curtail mining and other activities banned in most national monuments.
The new status is being championed by Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park), who introduced a bill this year to address problems in the 655,000-acre range by creating a "national recreation area" co-managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. Legislation on her bill has stalled.
In a letter sent to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week, Chu pressed for upgrades in the form of new recreation areas, parking facilities, restrooms, education kiosks, trails and a visitor reception program to welcome and orient visitors.
The proposal, however, is drawing criticism from some local lawmakers over its potential effects on private property rights, firefighting, water quality and flood control in the mountains, which stretch from Santa Clarita to San Bernardino.
"We have strong concerns about this proposal and its impacts," Tony Bell, spokesman for Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich said Monday.
Bell said his office first learned about the national monument proposal a few days ago from the county Department of Public Works, which is scrambling to figure out whether it might affect life-saving flood control systems.
National monument designation would at a minimum complicate Antonovich's recent proposal to route the state's planned high-speed rail route through the San Gabriels.
The White House declined to comment on the proposal Monday.
Mike Rogers, a former Angeles National Forest supervisor, said the central question is whether the designation would bring "more money for urgent needs such as getting urban kids up in those mountains. But pleas for additional funding have always been a crapshoot for the Forest Service, which has been handed a litany of unfunded mandates over the years."
The San Gabriel's wrinkled slopes and lush canyons attract 3.5 million visitors a year and are home to many rare and endangered species, including mountain lions, Nelson's bighorn sheep, mountain yellow-legged frogs, Santa Ana suckers and Pacific pond turtles.
"This forest has a unique burden in that it is so close to so many people," said Daniel Rossman, a spokesman for San Gabriel Mountains Forever, a coalition of environmental and community groups, including the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and Friends of the River.
"This designation would give public land managers the tools — and hopefully the money — to address their recreational needs and better protect this treasure trove of species, habitat and free-flowing rivers," Rossman said.
The foothill city of Monrovia opposes the designation, fearing, among other things, that it would infringe on local control of 1,400 acres the city bought in the foothills for use as a park. "The federal government seems bent on cramming this proposal into Monrovia in spite of our protest against it," said Tom Adams, a Monrovia city councilman.
Adams also said he wonders where money will come from to improve conditions. "The Forest Service is broke, and last time I looked at the federal budget there was no extra money there for it," he said.
The proposed designation will be discussed at a public meeting scheduled by Department of Agriculture and Forest Service officials for 4 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Baldwin Park Performing Arts Center, 4640 Maine Ave.
If approved, it would be the 11th time Obama has used his executive powers to establish or expand a national monument in the interest of protecting public lands.
The Forest Service is already holding talks with the county Department of Public Works over the effects on the flood control and reservoir systems it operates in the watershed. They include Cogswell Dam, which looms over an 8-mile stretch of the San Gabriel River's west fork that helps recharge the metropolitan aquifer in the flatlands below.
Other issues include law enforcement along East Fork Road and California 39, the winding mountain highway that provides the only access to Crystal Lake and other popular recreational areas. The roadways are patrolled by the CHP, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, Caltrans crews, volunteer brigades and, occasionally, Forest Service rangers.
The Fisheries Resource Volunteer Corps has removed about 9 tons of trash, 2,182 graffiti tags and 161 illegal fire rings from the Angeles National Forest over the last year.