COVER STORY : Some Unhappy Campers : Recreation Area Cutbacks Dampen Outdoor Season
Crystal Lake campers used to trudge into Armand Denis’ country store with their big fish stories, their sudden urge for a marshmallow, their wonder at the moon glow through a forest of cedar and pine.
Now, five days a week, Crystal Lake recreation area is a virtual ghost town, and Denis must bide his time until the people arrive on the weekend.
As spring ushers in the busy camping and hiking season, visitors to Angeles National Forest face Draconian cutbacks at the Crystal Lake recreation area and the closure of four of six other recreation sites in the Mt. Baldy Ranger District. Thousands of people will find it much harder, and sometimes impossible, to camp, fish or picnic in developed areas of the district, which draws 7.5 million visitors a year--more than Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks combined.
Crystal Lake recreation area, 26 miles north of Azusa, once drew crowds of more than 2,000 people on busy days to its 11 marked trails, scores of campsites, rock-work amphitheater and natural lake stocked with rainbow trout. But in late October, new federal budget cuts hit the 800-acre recreation grounds, one of the top draws in the Angeles National Forest, forcing the U.S. Forest Service on weekdays to shut the campgrounds entirely and close the gates to all but foot traffic.
Hiking and fishing are still allowed, as long as visitors are willing to make the two-mile hike from the locked parking gates to the trails or 1 1/2-mile hike to the lake. But some drivers pull up to the locked gate and turn around, not realizing that they are allowed to walk in.
And forest residents complain that frustrated campers and hikers are forging into unsupervised places and leaving a mess.
Besides limiting operations at Crystal Lake, the forest service has closed Manker Flats Campground, Deer Flats Group Campground, Glacier Picnic Area and Little Dalton Picnic Area. But these sites are much smaller than Crystal Lake.
Denis lives amid the hushed grandeur of snow-frosted trees, in a one-room cabin behind his store at one of the Crystal Lake campgrounds, not far from the cabin of his twin brother, the store’s co-owner. Last year the 176 campsites bustled with activity throughout the week. This year, the splendor is his alone on weekdays, except for the occasional hardy hiker or fishing fan. On a recent afternoon, the only sound was the brisk tat-tat-tat-tat of a woodpecker.
“It’s so nice up here, so beautiful, and they have the gates closed,” said Denis, 67. “It kills me.”
Mt. Baldy officials are just as distraught.
“It’s everything you think a national forest should be, this close to (the cities), yet we can’t make it available in a way it should be,” said recreation officer Tom Spencer with frustration in his voice.
Throughout the 694,000-acre forest’s five districts, shrinking budgets and rising costs are taking money away from camping, hiking, fishing and picnic areas. In the 155,000-acre Mt. Baldy district, which stretches from Duarte to the San Bernardino County line, the $155,500 budget for developed recreation sites was sliced by more than 25% in fiscal 1994.
“We have to make tough decisions about what we can keep open and what we have to close,” said Forest Supervisor Michael J. Rogers, who oversees the second busiest forest in the country, with more than 32 million visitors each year.
Mt. Baldy district officials have put off scheduled improvements at recreation areas, such as federally required wheelchair ramps and other accommodations for people with disabilities. They also laid off six temporary recreation employees, leaving only four field workers to clean and maintain recreation areas.
So far, forest officials say they have fielded few complaints about the cutbacks. But they are bracing for the urban crowd that arrives once spring wildflowers begin to bloom and evenings turn bright and balmy.
“There’ll be some unhappy campers, literally,” said Don Stikkers, the forest’s assistant recreation officer.
Already, Rep. David Dreier (R-Covina) has asked U.S. Forest Service officials for a meeting in Washington to discuss the agency’s budget woes, said his spokesman, Brad Smith. The congressman requested the meeting after Denis, the country store owner, submitted petitions with 600 signatures, demanding that the Crystal Lake recreation area return to an all-week operation with camping allowed.
But federal officials must balance the national forests against other pressing budget needs.
Meanwhile, Angeles National Forest officials are considering ways to bolster the number of volunteers and are studying the possibility of leasing recreation sites to private concessionaires, said Stikkers. Admission fees would be little help; under federal law, the forest service can charge admission to recreation areas, but the revenue is not necessarily funneled to the forest service.
Other Angeles districts are hurting just as badly. In the past two years, the forest has closed three picnic areas and two campgrounds in the Arroyo Seco district. In the Saugus district, officials plan to open only three of eight campgrounds--most of which are closed for the winter--in time for summer crowds. Tujunga and Valyermo district officials are unsure of their final budgets and do not know whether cuts will be necessary.
Cabin owners in the Mt. Baldy area say the cutbacks are driving visitors deeper into undeveloped forest areas. Camping is allowed in undeveloped areas, but there are no restrooms, trash cans, fire rings or supervision.
Cabin owner Dennis B. Rose said his walks through San Gabriel Canyon are ruined by the growing mounds of broken glass, soiled diapers and used condoms in what used to be relatively clean areas.
“The example I’ve given the forest service is, if Disneyland closed down their restrooms and didn’t clean the grounds every night, it’d look like our canyon area in a matter of weeks,” said Rose, 42, a forest volunteer and San Gabriel Canyon Property Owners Assn. board member.
At Crystal Lake, the dismay is equally felt, but for different reasons.
On a recent weekday morning, Pasadena resident Richard Clinton hauled his fishing pole and two trout down the long, icy trail from the lake to the recreation area’s closed gates, where he had left his car. In the past, he was able to drive closer to the lake. Clinton, 34, used to take his two young children fishing with him, but now the walk is too much for them and the weekends are too crowded.
“It’s a shame to have such a pretty place closed down so people can’t get up here,” said Clinton, a Fuller Theological Seminary professor. “It’s one of the easiest (forest) places you can get to.”
Clinton’s departure left only two people on the lake--John Close, 33, and a friend, both of whom were having no luck fishing. But they were not displeased by the closed gates, which kept crowds away.
“I didn’t like the walk up here, but it’s nice--65 to 70 degrees, snow out, no one here--it just doesn’t happen (much), " said Close, who hadn’t known that the gates would be locked.
Near the lake, 20-year-old Simon Madrid and a friend grumbled about the hike from the gates. Each carried a makeshift snowboard--Styrofoam surfboards that slide like crazy in the snow. Neither expected the gates to be closed.
Madrid, an unemployed La Puente resident, said the forest service should make Crystal Lake a priority because the free, accessible recreation keeps young people out of trouble.
“It’s better than being out in the streets or in jail or shot or something,” he said.
Back at the campgrounds, Denis sat alone in his 1934-vintage store built of cedar and pine, with old stone pillars.
He adds a homey touch to the pine-scented store by selling $1 marshmallow roasting sticks that he fashions out of welding rods and 35-cent photo postcards that he shoots himself--he got the close-up shot of the two deer by sneaking outside his house on his hands and knees.
Denis and his brother bought the store 12 years ago, hoping to make enough money for a retirement nest egg. But without the weekday business, Denis lives mostly on his $650-a-month Social Security income.
He misses the people, too, even the campers who would rouse him at night with pleas to open the store so they could get marshmallows, chips, or other emergency munchies. He’d oblige for anything but cigarettes.
He would wander the campground and point out stars and planets to the children, and families would invite him to share steak or hamburgers around the campfire.
Now he tells his memories in an empty clearing, his voice accompanied only by the drip of snowmelt from the roof of his store.
Angeles national Forest Cutbacks
Budget woes are forcing cutbacks or closure at local picnicking, hiking, camping and fishing in the Angeles National Forest, including the local. Mt. Baldy Ranger district. 1) Crystal Lake Recreation Area & Campground:
176 camping sites, trails, fishing, 60 picnic areas.
Open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sat., Sun. and some holidays.
No overnight camping
2) Deer Flats Group Campground:
Nine individual sites for groups of 20 to 65.
3) Coldbrook Campground:
25 camping sites.
Overnight camping permitted.
4) Manker Flats Campground:
22 camping sites. Closed indefinitely.
5) Galcier Picnic Area:
Picnic tables, stoves, toilets. Closed indefinitely.
6) Oaks Picnic Area
Picnic tables, stoves, toilets open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
7) Little Dalton Picnic Area
Picnic tables. Closed permanently.