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Seeking TLC for a Forest Being Loved to Death : Resources: A survey shows that the public wants to see more rangers in the mountains. The dilemma is that a burgeoning number of people want access, but not the problems that overuse brings.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The budget for the Angeles National Forest is shrinking and the demands on the wilderness preserve have never been greater. So forest supervisor Michael J. Rogers sent out a request for the public to tell him “what you think the MOST IMPORTANT part of our job is.”

As the Angeles nears the end of its 100th anniversary, Rogers got answers aplenty--clean up the graffiti and garbage, restrict access to pristine areas, maintain the restrooms better, stop people from throwing disposable diapers into streams.

But a central theme emerged in written and telephone responses.

Forest visitors want to see flesh-and-blood government rangers in the San Gabriel Mountains and its canyons, and at the entrances to campgrounds and along the streams.

“They want to see more of us in green uniforms in the forest at the same time they are,” said Bernice Bigelow, a forest official who is reviewing the comments.

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Rogers said the public belief is that “we are no longer visible in the forest.” Bigelow added: “People want to be able to get information or to know there is someone nearby who can be called if help is needed.”

A secondary priority emerged. Visitors are worried that not enough is being done to protect the health of the forest, its plants, animals, rocks, trees and rivers.

Many comments reflected what Rogers calls “the loved-to-death theme.” This is the belief that too many people are simply crushing the natural world and crowding each other in the 693,000-acre national forest that stretches from Wrightwood to Gorman.

Rogers said he shares the concern that rivers and streams are deteriorating from overuse and that “this is a conflict that the animals are going to wind up losing.”

The dilemma Forest Service officials face, said Richard Borden, special projects coordinator, is that residents of the burgeoning metropolis of Southern California “want to use the forest but want it protected too.”

Among the more than 50 comments from individuals and outdoor organizations, Rogers said, there were no surprises. But he said the information “is going to help us focus on the two to three things that the public thinks and that we think we should be doing.”

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“We have to figure out how to do business better and more efficiently.”

This has become particularly true in an era of smaller budgets. In 1982 the budget was $20.4 million. In some years it has dropped to as low as $16 million, and in the past few years has hovered around its present level of $19 million.

Other numbers tell the story too.

In the 1970s, there were six permanent firefighting crews with 20 employees each. Today there are three crews of 20. (Wednesday’s firestorm in the Eaton Canyon area of the forest, which destroyed or damaged dozens of homes, was fought by firefighters from several jurisdictions, including the Forest Service. There was no immediate indication that a lack of firefighters contributed to the losses.)

Forest rangers used to conduct regular campfire and instructional programs throughout the Angeles. Today it is a rarity.

Three decades ago, there were about 650 employees, including 350 full-time ones. Now there are 400 employees, including 259 full-timers.

Rogers acknowledged that a widespread perception, especially among Forest Service critics, is that virtually all employees of the Angeles National Forest have become desk-bound bureaucrats.

In the Arcadia headquarters of the Angeles, Rogers said, there are about 70 to 80 full-time employees and few are out in the forest on a regular basis.

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Before 1980, he said, probably 80% of all Angeles employees regularly worked outdoors. Now, he said, that has dropped to about 55%. As one reason, he cited the increased demands on managers to complete paperwork required to meet environmental regulations.

Another change has also occurred during recent decades.

Until about 1960, access to most of the forest was restricted during the fire season from May to December. The advent of more fire stations and an increase in firefighting equipment led to the opening of the entire forest on a year-round basis.

With that came more people and more problems.

These days, Rogers said, “everyone wants to do everything on the forest and there’s not room for everybody to do everything.”

Above all else, Rogers said he must remind himself, his staff and the public that the basic mission of the Forest Service “is to prevent fires and protect the natural resources. If we ever lose sight of that . . . there is no reason for us to be here.”

Those beliefs were echoed by one Forest Service critic, Barret H. Weatherby, who wrote a letter in response to Rogers’ call for comments. Weatherby is president of an outdoor group, Public Lands for the People, and active in a fishing organization, Pasadena Bait Club.

He suggested forming a committee of people who use the forest to advise Forest Service officials.

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He complained that the Forest Service is managed poorly, with dictates emanating from Washington that have no bearing on local problems.

“We’ve got four ‘urban forests’ down here in Southern California that don’t match anything else in the United States,” Weatherby said, referring to the Angeles, San Bernardino, Cleveland and Los Padres national forests.

The problems of urban life spilling into the Angeles also concern Jeanne Evans, who lives near the Santa Clarita Valley in an area surrounded by forest land.

“We have a big problem with the dumping of garbage, couches, hazardous wastes, even bodies in the forest,” she said. “They should seal the forest off and charge a minimal entrance fee of say $1 day.”

Glen Owens, head of the Big Santa Anita Historical Society, which publishes books and maps about the national forest and Southern California’s mountains, agrees that might be a solution.

But he suggested taking it one step further: “If things keep going as they poorly are,” he said, “the logical thing is to just build a fence around the forest and lock it up.”

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Additional comments will be accepted for several weeks. Address: Angeles National Forest, Attention: Improvement Hotline, 701 N. Santa Anita Ave., Arcadia, Calif. 91006-2799. Or call the hot line: (818) 574-5349, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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