The picnicker in the low-hanging Hawaiian shorts was dumbfounded. "I didn't know there was a law against cutting down a little tree," he said. "How're you going to have fun if you can't get any sunlight in there?"
"This is a National Forest," Forest Service Officer Larry Brown responded tersely. "You can't do that."
A bystander had spotted the man flailing with a machete at some alder trees along the stream bed of the San Gabriel River. "I've been coming up here for 20 years, and I've cut down trees before," the picnicker said.
By the time Brown got there, the damage was done. Two jaggedly cut stumps jutted from the bushes. A couple of 8-year-old trees, their lush greenery in stark contrast to the dry chaparral brush that covers most of San Gabriel Canyon, were spread out on the ground like a pair of freshly murdered corpses.
What If Everybody Did It?
Brown, a thickset man with the bearing of a gunslinger, his arms hanging loose at his sides as if ready for a quick-draw, simmered. "What if everybody came up here and chopped down trees?" he asked.
The picnicker shrugged and accepted a $50 citation. "I guess you got a point there," he said. "But I did it."
A hot Sunday in July. Brown, 41, one of only three unarmed U.S. Forest Service officers patrolling the busy canyon, was going about his usual duties, dousing illegal campfires, chastising beer-guzzling plinkers at the Pigeon Ridge shooting area ("Alcohol and guns don't mix"), passing out trash bags to would-be litterers and helping visitors with car problems.
If urban police officers represent a "thin blue line" of protection for citizens, Brown and his colleagues, in their green Ford Broncos, are a kind of thin green line between one of the nation's busiest forests and a notoriously recreation-happy population.
"There are days out here when you're just hanging on by a shoestring," Brown says.
4 Million Visitors a Year
About 4 million visitors a year drive up through Azusa, into the San Gabriel Canyon: off-road vehicle enthusiasts, campers, hikers, plinkers or, often, people who just like to stand beside Highway 39, lobbing their empty beer cans into the canyon.
It's the most heavily used part of the 1,000-square-mile Angeles National Forest, which covers about 25% of Los Angeles County. On the Fourth of July, there were so many cars jammed into the area by mid-afternoon that authorities had to close the highway, because there was a danger that emergency vehicles would be blocked.
It takes a special kind of person to work there, says Brown, who has been doing it for 14 years. "You can't just hand someone keys and a badge and tell them to go do the job," he says. "You need tolerance, patience, perseverance, the ability to work with people."
Colleagues of Brown's have transferred to the gritty Angeles from the pristine wildernesses of Northern California. "They experience culture shock," says Brown. "Some people can't wait to transfer back up."
The rhythm of the day picks up as the day gets hotter. With the sun just edging up over Mt. Baldy's shoulder, Brown pulls out some historical nuggets about the forest--an account of the Civil War-era gold rush along the East Fork, for example--and speculates about the causes of recent wildfires.
Started by Fireworks
"This one here," says Brown, who also is a fire investigator for the Forest Service, "we're 98% sure was started by fireworks." He surveys a scorched, bristly tract of slope, where a fire was quickly doused by firefighters three weeks ago.
By late morning, the highway is buzzing with traffic. Brown and Forest Service Officer Rita Nolan confer briefly about where they'll focus their efforts. "I'll see you later at the afternoon accident," says Nolan as she heads to the off-road vehicle area where all-terrain vehicles and 4x4s are already tearing recklessly along rutted dirt trails. Brown looks at his watch. "It's now 11 o'clock," he says. "Experience tells me that we're liable to see anything from now on."
The forest has been on Stage 1 fire alert since June 26, and the brownish green chaparral that covers the craggy mountains along Highway 39 is as dry as tinder. "It's a fire waiting to happen," Brown says as he gives the slopes an edgy once-over. On Monday, the drought-struck forest went into Stage 2, meaning that some areas have been closed off and there are further restrictions on campfires.
Down in the stream bed, kids frolic in the water, parents lie on blankets and barbecues glow with heat. "Charcoal, yes," says Brown to a Spanish-speaking family which has fed some logs into a cooking fire. "Wood, no." He hands a man a canvas bucket, directs him to the stream for water and watches as he douses the fire.
"Wood fires tend to be a lot more dangerous," he explains. "Barbecues are self-contained. People put them out and take them home."
The Forest Service permits barbecues between the stream bed and the road, even during first-stage alerts. "There's a certain management risk there," says Brown, who often speaks in forest management bureaucratese ("We had to give the ORVer's some restroom opportunities.")
But the practice of outdoor cooking in the canyon has become so "ingrained," says Brown, that it's impossible to stop, even with the threat of a $50 ticket. "They drove 45 miles, and they're going to have a barbecue," he said. "Not cooking at home and bringing it up. No. Cooking up here."
Brown drives up the narrow dirt road to Pigeon Ridge, where plinkers, amid a blizzard of casings and ammunition boxes, single-mindedly pump bullets into tree stumps and tin cans. A man with a large-caliber rifle on his shoulder is hiking up the road. "Empty the beer can," Brown tells the man. It's illegal to drink alcohol in shooting areas. "You got a round in the gun?"
"Just one," says the man. He ejects a bullet.
"Let's see the empty chamber," says Brown.
Embarrassed, the man ejects five more bullets from the gun, then continues up to the top of the ridge with the rifle's action open. There he can legally load his gun, Brown said.
"A lot of people up here don't have a whole lot of respect for what firearms can do," Brown says.
Looking for AK-47s
Today, he's keeping his eyes open for shooters with AK-47 assault rifles. Some Chinese-made bullets for the weapon have recently appeared at shooting areas. The bullets have steel cores, which create sparks when they hit rocks. "They burned that whole hillside last summer," he said, pointing at another broad tract of scorched, pigskin-like slope.
Back on the highway, Brown spots a thin column of smoke rising from patch of woods to the west. He parks his truck and treks along a narrow path through a stand of wild oaks. A group of men lie around a smoking barbecue. A gaggle of pistols in holsters dangle from a branch, and an AK-47, its hollow butt end in the dirt, lies at the base of a tree. No, they don't have Chinese bullets, the men say.
"Why don't you put the guns in the car?" Brown says politely, just a hint of uneasiness in his voice.
By 4 o'clock, there is again a steady stream of traffic on Highway 39. Hikers, people in off-road vehicles, plinkers and the rest are heading home. "Now's the time we get our accidents," Brown says.
Sure enough, the message squawks in on Brown's radio. Vehicle over the side. Possible injuries. Brown steps on it, pulls into a hairpin turn near the bottom of the canyon and stops near a group of people by the side of the road. A stunned-looking Salvadoran family stands near their Toyota 4x4, which looks as if it has been dealt an uppercut by a pile driver. The hood bulges upward, the front wheels tilt inward, and the windshield is a road map of tiny cracks. The truck had rolled over--fortunately on the uphill side of the road.
No Serious Injuries
A young woman clutches her wrist and a man's shirt front is stained with blood from his nose, but no one is seriously injured. "It looks as if they caught some dirt (on the side of the road), over-corrected, slammed into the wall there and turned over," says Sheriff's Deputy Don Stotts. "By the time I got here, the family was rolling the vehicle upright."
Nolan is there, denying there was anything prophetic about her earlier remark.
"It's our 4 o'clock accident," says Stotts. "You can set your clock by it." He looks at his watch. "Make that 5 o'clock. I forgot we were on daylight savings."
Brown takes the name of the driver, writes some notes on the accident, explains the situation to some California Highway Patrol officers and heads out of the canyon. A "moderate" day, he pronounces it. "Not heavy, not light. Almost manageable."