After years of fighting a losing battle with the urban problems of violent crime, theft, drug abuse and drunk driving that accompany the 40,000 people who crowd San Gabriel Canyon on busy weekends, law enforcement officials say they are regaining control of the area.
“A lot of the bad element has left the canyon, and I think we’ve taken it back for families to use,” said Capt. Tom Vetter, commander of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s San Dimas substation. “We are addressing the problems we have up there, and I think we’re doing a good job.”
Although the U.S. Forest Service, the Sheriff’s Department and the California Highway Patrol began coordinating their enforcement efforts in San Gabriel Canyon three years ago, the payoff in lower crime rates and improved safety has come primarily in the last year.
Crime on the Wane
According to Sheriff’s Department statistics, there were 15 incidents of violent crime between July 1, 1985, and March 30, 1986. For the 12 previous months, there were 22 such incidents.
Such crimes as burglaries and thefts have been decreasing at a greater rate, the Sheriff’s Department said. There were 57 such crimes from July, 1985, through March, 1986; there had been 126 such incidents in the previous 12 months.
“We’ve made great strides in controlling the area,” said William Woodland, Forest Service recreation officer. “We have not been able to increase our patrols significantly, but we have changed their operating hours to spread them out more effectively.
“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from the users. That’s the best sign that we’re being successful.”
‘No Law Up There’
Forest Service personnel--trained primarily in land management, not law enforcement--have had to contend with mounting crime problems in San Gabriel Canyon since the early 1970s.
With no officers regularly patrolling the area, the easily accessible canyon became a magnet for illegal activities, said Roger Richcreek, crime prevention and enforcement coordinator for Angeles National Forest.
“People would say, ‘We’re going up to the canyon because there’s no law up there, no one will hassle us,’ ” Richcreek said.
That changed in 1983 when problems at the canyon’s Crystal Lake campground prompted the Forest Service to arm some of its rangers and coordinate law enforcement with the Sheriff’s Department and the CHP under the Crystal Lake Alternative Management Plan, referred to by officers as CLAMP.
‘Tired of Feeling Threatened’
“It was the first time in the United States that we routinely armed Forest Service rangers,” Richcreek said, adding that complaints from visitors justified the move.
“People were tired of feeling threatened and having to get up in the middle of the night and leave (the campground) because of the loud music and the rocks and bottles being thrown,” Richcreek said.
The key to reduced crime since then, Richcreek said, has been the higher profile taken by the various agencies that patrol the canyon.
The Forest Service has increased the presence of its armed patrol officers, particularly in the canyon’s off-road-vehicle area. The Sheriff’s Department has stepped up patrols on California 39--the canyon’s only access route--and the CHP is assisting the Azusa and Glendora police departments in using highway checkpoints to apprehend drunk drivers.
Several weekends a year, the agencies pool their resources during “maximum enforcement periods” to crack down on chronic crime problems.
“When I first came up here, I’d stop people, and they’d say, ‘I didn’t know there were any police up here,’ ” said Deputy Doug Reimer of the Sheriff’s Department. “They don’t say that anymore.”
The increased patrols also have improved traffic safety on California 39, formerly dubbed a “killer road” because its accident rate was three times the average for mountain highways.
Since 1984, the rate of accidents has been decreasing. There were 118 accidents in 1984 and 84 in 1985. There were 29 in the first five months of this year. More significant, there have been no traffic deaths on the road this year; there were 11 in 1985.
“We’ve been sending more patrols up there on overtime,” said CHP Officer Andre Tate. “When people see all the patrol cars up there, they start to calm down. I think that’s why we’re seeing fewer accidents.”
The agencies also have been successful in curbing alcohol and drug use by teen-agers in turnouts on Glendora Mountain Road, which winds through Angeles National Forest east of San Gabriel Canyon.
Earlier this spring, the county Department of Public Works built berms to close off the turnouts. The county Board of Supervisors enacted an ordinance last month closing the road from 8 p.m. until 8 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays and on nights preceding holidays.
“Teen-agers were going up there to drink beer and smoke dope,” Reimer said. “On a Friday or Saturday night, we used to have 200 to 300 kids at a turnout. . . . Since they put the berms in, it’s stopped 80% of the problems on that road, and now that we’ve got this legislation, it’ll be 100% stopped.”
On the second night the ordinance was in effect, patrols manned by sheriff’s deputies and Forest Service officers found only a few cars in turnouts along a nine-mile stretch of Glendora Mountain Road.
Hard Line on Vandalism
The Forest Service also has taken a hard line in its efforts to stop vandalism, phasing in restrooms made of eight-inch-thick concrete slabs with small windows of bulletproof plexiglass to allow sunlight in.
“We affectionately call them ‘the bunkers,’ ” Woodland said. “They’ve worked out quite well.”
Gates used to close off roads now are made of thicker, 3/8-inch steel pipe. They are able to withstand repeated shelling by canyon users toting shotguns--and sometimes illegal automatic weapons--though determined vandals still can destroy them with dynamite. “We’ve lost two of them that way,” Woodland said.
But despite successes against some types of crime, law enforcement efforts in other areas have been constrained by a shortage of personnel, administrative regulations and the logistics of policing the canyon.
Limited Number of Patrols
Sheriff’s deputies now remain in the canyon later at night than before, but patrols are infrequent between 2 and 8 a.m.
Emergency calls from people camping in the off-road-vehicle area must be handled by sheriff’s units from San Dimas.
Parts of the canyon--particularly the off-road-vehicle area, which draws as many as 15,000 people a weekend--are patrolled only by Forest Service officers, who lack the authority to enforce local and state laws.
As a result, little can be done about visitors who routinely drive their all-terrain cycles and dirt bikes with one hand on the throttle and the other clutching a beer.
Vetter said the Sheriff’s Department, which has jurisdiction over the off-road-vehicle area (also known as “the pit”), is doing its best to police the area, given its manpower limitations.
“We’ve targeted the ORV area for narcotics violations and drunk-driving violations,” Vetter said. “But we can’t just drive down in that pit and patrol it. That would be an impossibility.”
Forest Service officers technically have the authority to enforce a ban on alcohol in the off-road-vehicle area enacted last June, but Richcreek said the ordinance is enforced “extremely sparingly.”
Those who patrol the pit daily say rigid law enforcement there is just not feasible.
“In the past, this has always been a free-for-all area,” said Donna Deaton, the Forest Service’s off-road-vehicle area manager. “I’ve been called a communist because I expected people to have valid registration.”
Tom Bailey, a Forest Service law enforcement officer, said those patrolling the pit are usually outnumbered by violators and their belligerent cohorts, making police work difficult.
“You get large groups of people who have been drinking, they’re egged on by one another, and it’s very hard to make an enforcement,” Bailey said. “We as an agency can only do so much. We often feel handcuffed.”
Serge Duarte, assistant manager of the off-road-vehicle area, said a major problem with policing the pit is that people often feel that they are exempt from the law when they visit a recreation area.
“Without getting too philosophical about it,” he said, “there’s a marked feeling among people that when they go into the forest, they lose their identity, that they’re no longer responsible for their actions.”
Duarte, who worked at Glacier National Park in Montana before coming to the canyon, said that federal law gives national park rangers the authority to enforce state and local laws, but not rangers in national forests.
And while the joint efforts of the three agencies during special enforcement periods usually curb illegal shooting, unauthorized use of off-road vehicles or alcohol violations, the results are often short-lived.
“The problems really decrease, in some cases come to a halt, but you can’t maintain that,” said B. L. Litt, a Forest Service law enforcement officer. “As soon as you stop, within a few weeks, they’re back doing the same things again.”
In addition to law enforcement difficulties, litter remains a pervasive problem in the area, with visitors scattering 14 tons of trash around the canyon in an average week.
The canyon received a massive clean-up after the Memorial Day weekend with Operation Supersweep, in which more than 400 volunteers removed almost 30 tons of litter. Within a week, however, California 39 again was lined with beer bottles and other debris.
Forest Service employees said that while most canyon users are conscientious about removing their trash, even a small percentage of litterers can cause serious problems. Much of the trash, they said, is left by recent immigrants who are not aware of national forest regulations.
Currently, the Forest Service has only one ranger who speaks fluent Spanish to educate users on litter and fire regulations. However, Woodland said, the use of international symbols on signs may help solve the communications problem.
But although urban problems continue to encroach on the wilderness, Forest Service officers say they are pleased with the progress that has been made.
“I think it’s toned down a bit since we’ve been doing active enforcement,” Bailey said. “We’ve been able to take the rough edges off it.”
Most important, Duarte said, the increased enforcement also has been well received by canyon visitors.
“We’re getting a lot more comments from people that they feel a lot safer in the canyon now. They feel it’s a place they can bring their families,” he said.
“We need a good concerted effort between the agencies to be effective, and we’re finally starting to see that.”