Clash Over the Quarry : At Fish Canyon’s Majestic Waterfall, Rivals Find Some Common Ground
Heading into Fish Canyon, two unlikely hiking partners trekked carefully around a quarry that is carving up a mountain of granite--and virtually blocking the trail to one of the most stunning waterfalls in the Angeles National Forest.
“They’re tearing down our mountain,” said Jim McJunkin, the brash spokesman for environmentalists who have demanded that the Azusa City Council shut down the Azusa Rock Inc. quarry.
Undaunted by the criticism, quarry spokesman Tom Davis, the other hiker, countered: “People say, without being facetious, that we are going to mine through the mountains--all the way to Palmdale. We are not going to tear down the mountains as people know the mountains.” From the privately owned mouth of Fish Canyon to the waterfalls on public lands to the north, the amicable adversaries hiked along a rocky path into the San Gabriel Mountains, a hike that would yield surprises for them.
Making their way from denuded slopes to a place where native trout swim in a perennial stream lined by aromatic sage plants and bay trees, McJunkin and Davis chatted about coming of age in the 1960s: McJunkin, today’s 48-year-old environmentalist and business sales consultant, once a Youth for Nixon; Davis, the 40-year-old corporate spokesman, a campus radical when he studied geology.
Far from that wilderness yet within sight of the canyon, the City of Azusa on Monday will weigh environmental concerns against the city’s economic stake in the quarry and consider whether to revoke the operating permit for the 186-acre site. For the last six years, this debate has regularly found its way to the Planning Commission, the City Council and the courtroom. Since 1990, one year after environmentalists failed to persuade a Superior Court judge that environmental laws demand closure of the near-century-old quarry site, the city has required an annual review of the quarry permit.
Davis looks at Fish Canyon and sees the raw building blocks for skyscrapers, freeways, houses, commuter and subway rail beds, sidewalks and ocean breakwaters.
“We have a legitimate right to operate this facility to serve a public demand,” he says, noting that the average American “consumes” four to eight tons of rock annually--just by riding on streets, walking on sidewalks, and living and working in buildings, all made of rock to some degree.
“Some of these (environmentalists) . . . just want us out of here. There’s no compromise.”
The quarry’s owners--CalMat Co. and New Owl Rock Products, which jointly took over the facility in 1989--have gone to great expense to remedy environmental complaints about its operations, Davis said.
At a cost of $10 million, the quarry is building a 2 1/2-mile-long conveyor belt that by year’s end will carry rock from the quarry to Owl Rock and CalMat plants. This project was partly designed in response to complaints about trucks traveling through Duarte, on a public road originally financed by the quarry.
But environmentalists like McJunkin charge that the quarry, as it chews up the mouth of Fish Canyon, continues to cause air, noise, water and visual pollution. Despite Azusa Rock’s efforts to replant the mountainside, he says, a scar as tall as a skyscraper mars the landscape.
He and other environmentalists complain that the quarry, in league with the U.S. Forest Service, has shut the public off from the canyon and the 80-foot waterfalls, an hour’s hike north of the quarry in Angeles National Forest.
On their way to the falls that Davis had never visited and that hikers have had little access to for a decade, the men gingerly journeyed on a deteriorated trail.
They dodged landslides and trees felled by recent storms. And at one point where the trail was treacherous and washed out, Davis abruptly slid down a steep gravelly slope and then righted himself.
As they trekked, they passed the foundations of dozens of cabins, long since abandoned after the Forest Service in the 1970s decided to stop leasing the public land.
Access to the falls has been restricted since about 1983, except for hikers who obtain permission from the quarry. Extensive coastal flooding had increased the demand for the large rip-rap rock the quarry is known for. As a result, quarry operations began to block off the trail, which hikers had been permitted to use for decades. Today, Davis said, the quarry makes its trail available on a case-by-case basis, depending on weather and quarry operations.
“People were upset and we were upset,” Don Stikkers, a U.S. Forest Service official, said of the closure of the trail head in the 1980s.
Since then, Stikkers said, the Forest Service has worked to reopen it. At one point, the quarry and the Forest Service built a new trail, one that started high above the canyon mouth to avoid conflicts between hikers and machinery.
But that trail was steep and treacherous with rockslides, Stikkers said, and eventually it was shut at Forest Service request.
County and federal officials have blamed the quarry for wiping out a rare flowering plant in the canyon, the Dudleya densiflora, and a type of fish, the arroyo chub.
Quarry supporters in the largely blue-collar town of 41,333 say that to shut down Azusa Rock would cause devastation of another kind: a collapse of the city’s finances.
With a total of 125 local employees, Azusa Rock, CalMat and Owl Rock contribute mightily to the city coffers. Two years ago, for instance, the city’s five quarries accounted for close to 7% of Azusa’s revenues, supplying more than $1 million, most of it from a “rock extraction tax.”
Azusa is already financially strapped. Sidewalk repairs, tree-trimming and roadway improvements have been curtailed along with the public library’s hours. Things are so bad the city has delayed repair of a hole in the police station roof.
Without Azusa Rock, the city would be even worse off, said Davis, president of the Azusa Chamber of Commerce. And the health of Azusa Rock directly affects the well-being of CalMat and Owl Rock, whose two neighboring sand, gravel and asphalt plants are supplied with material from the quarry.
As he and McJunkin hiked, Davis spoke proudly of Azusa Rock’s community involvement, such as contributions in Azusa and neighboring Duarte to Little League teams, public parks, schools and scholarship programs.
“This has been a rock town from the beginning,” Davis said, adding that quarrying first took place around Fish Canyon as early as 1908 when the area began to serve as a convenient supplier of the voracious rock needs of Los Angeles.
The current permit for the site was first issued in 1956, long before today’s strict environmental laws were in place.
In recent years, the Azusa Rock issue has been emotional and divisive. Candidates, some of whom have received donations from rock companies, have based campaigns on their quarry stand. Two councilmen in 1989 fought back a recall campaign based partly on their support for the quarry. Azusa Rock spent tens of thousands of dollars in that fight, and now threatens to take the city to court if the council shuts the quarry down.
Some environmentalists see the quarry fight in global terms. Rainforest Action Committee’s Southern California director Atossa Soltani said her group opposes the mining operation because a Mitsubishi subsidiary, MCCD, owns 50% of New Owl Rock Products.
On behalf of indigenous people of the Third World, she said, Rainforest Action has fought Mitsubishi over its logging and mining interests. “How can we fight to protect forests elsewhere in the world if we don’t fight at home?” she said. “In the case of Azusa Rock, we are the indigenous people.”
To some quarry supporters, allowing rock mining is no different from permitting houses to be built on the foothills, as in Glendale, Duarte, Bradbury or many other places. And besides, quarry advocate and Azusa Councilman John Dangleis said, there really isn’t a valid aesthetic issue. “Personally,” he said, “I don’t think the hills are that pretty.”
Along the Fish Canyon stream, Davis and McJunkin reached a swirling pool surrounded by boulders as big as a Buick. McJunkin, who moved to Azusa when he was 12, said: “I used to swim there years ago.”
“And he used to catch fish with his bare teeth,” Davis joked.
Eventually, they heard the falls, long before they saw it. A thunderous sound rolled down the canyon walls.
A few minutes later, Davis had a reaction he’d never expected.
“Cowabunga!” he said, looking at the layered tiers of water. “Now I can see why you guys want to keep the trail open.”
Water sprayed on them as they hopped boulder-to-boulder for a better view.
As the men returned wet and muddy, Davis proposed that the two should join forces to reopen the trail. He said, “It’s bad for everybody. Bad for us. Bad for the Forest Service and bad for hikers.”
With that, McJunkin said he could agree.
Free-lance writer Richard Winton contributed to this story.