Crystal Lake Preservation Plan Sparks Debate Over Aesthetics

Times Staff Writer

The rugged beauty of this 98-acre recreational area presents a vivid panorama at this time of the year: the shimmering little lake amid a green landscape, all set against the backdrop of a deep-blue sky.

They can't drink the water or swim in the stagnant, grass-filled lake anymore, but fishermen, picnickers, campers and nature buffs still come to this popular retreat in the San Gabriel Mountains, 25 miles north of Azusa, as they have for nearly 120 years.

It once was also known as a "party place" that attracted vandals and other visitors with little regard for its beauty, prompting authorities to develop a preservation plan to safeguard it from further abuse. But those efforts have placed Crystal Lake in the middle of a debate.

Its main tenants--twin brothers Dave and Armand Denis--want more development. But the landlord, the U.S. Forest Service, wants more nature.

The Denises operate the Crystal Lake Trading Post on a 2.3-acre tract that they lease from the forest service. The brothers, along with Dave's wife, Annette, and a young couple who help out are the only permanent residents.

Since moving here two years ago, the brothers have had high hopes for the trading post that they own and operate, which includes a small general store, a snack bar and an ice cream stand. An adjacent 176-site campground and a picnic area is run by the forest service.

"I'm here because I'd like to develop and build (up) Crystal Lake," Dave Denis said. "We're enthused about it--we really want it to go."

The Denises envision a petting zoo, a restaurant, swings and teeter-totters for children, cabins and old-fashioned shops. Armand Denis said he and his brother proposed a restaurant with a dance floor on a nearby ridge, but forestry officials rejected that idea. "They say people just want the trees and solitude," said Armand Denis, "but how much can you stand?"

Bill Woodland, Mt. Baldy district recreational resource officer for the forest service, said his agency has encouraged and approved small-scale development in a limited area, but already has plans for the ridge area.

But Woodland said the forest service is reluctant to encourage major development for one simple reason: "Crystal Lake was being overused," he said.

Lake Was a 'Party Place'

Until three years ago, Woodland explained, "Crystal Lake was known as a party place. It was known as a place to hang out and raise hell. We were losing campers. The place was being trampled. There was soil erosion and trees were dying."

In 1982 the forest service, along with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the California Highway Patrol, began a joint effort to minimize vandalism and harassment of campers. During the past two winters, the Denis brothers have helped keep a benevolent eye on things because the number of forest rangers has been cut back to a skeleton crew of two.

Woodland said the program required an additional six to eight officers to patrol Crystal Lake at night, but eventually saved the forestry service more than $40,000 in reduced vandalism costs in its first year. Forestry officials believe the problem is now more under control as a result of the program and a policy of closing the campground at night and closing the entire canyon when the campground fills up.

"We're trying to change it from a Disneyland environment to its natural state--back to what nature gave us," Woodland said.

Agree With Forest Service

Dave Denis said that he and his brother agree with the forest service's basic objective. "We would like to have a small area--a rustic area," he said. "We do not want to change the campground."

But the Denises contend that expansion would not necessarily bring chaos, especially if the attractions were designed to attract families.

"We want to give people the chance to come up here and enjoy the area--and be secure," Armand Denis said.

For now, the Denises said, they plan to stay at Crystal Lake in the hope that forestry officials will eventually soften their opposition to major expansion of its commercial facilities. Both said they love the Crystal Lake area.

"The best thing going for it," said Dave Denis, "is its proximity to the public. It's an exciting and enjoyable place to live."

The lake, its campgrounds and the surrounding canyons attract about 100,000 visitors annually, Woodland said, in large part because the San Gabriel Mountains are only an hour's drive from much of Los Angeles County.

Once Called Sycamore Lake

Crystal Lake, which encompasses five acres when full, is the only natural lake in the mountain range. As early as 1900, it was home to a few tough individuals, and was often visited by vacationers from Coldbrook Camp, a nearby resort.

Historians say the lake was originally known as Sycamore Lake until Judge Benjamin Eaton of Pasadena commented on its crystal-like appearance in 1887.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors ran the recreational area from 1928 to 1943. During that period, it became a mountain playground of sorts with campsites, swimming and boating facilities, a dance floor, baseball diamond and other amusements. In 1943, the area was returned to the control of the forest service.

Woodland said that he would like to see the lake returned to its natural state more quickly. Part of a long-term plan to redirect traffic away from the lake is already in effect, he said.

Improvements Planned

Other goals include the construction of a visitor's center and expansion of a 15-mile network of hiking trails. Both projects are awaiting financing.

Woodland said he is worried that the lack of funds could also cause the closure of the Crystal Lake campground, particularly because the service loses money in operating it.

In an effort to offset this loss, the forest service last year hired a private businessman to manage the campground. However, the service had some problems with the concessionaire and terminated the contract, Woodland said. New bids for management of the campground will be sought in early March.

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