Going the Last Mile for the Backbone Trail

It's winter in the rugged Santa Monica Mountains--red toyon berries announce the season, migrating Monarch butterflies cluster on cold days, Black-shouldered kites hover midair and dive for prey. Little has changed since the Chumash Indians used Sycamore Canyon to travel inland from the ocean to the valley grasslands, at midpoint crossing what is today the Backbone Trail.

The trail runs northwest along the spine of the mountains from the edge of urban Los Angeles 70 miles to Point Mugu in Ventura County. Except that there is a missing link--six miles of privately owned land in the area that spans the county line.

The nonprofit Mountains Conservancy Foundation has launched a fund-raising campaign to complete the purchase of the trail corridor. If the campaign succeeds, the trail will connect all the major parks of the Santa Monica Mountains. Existing "rib" trails from communities all along the route provide access to the Backbone Trail for day hikers.

Ruth Taylor Kilday, executive director of the Foundation, says government funding, which since the 1960s has provided about $270 million acquiring park land for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, has dried up. Private funds are needed to close the gap. WILLIAM M. GARLAND III, member of the board of trustees of the foundation, spoke with JANE SPILLER.

Having a 70-mile trail so close to such a huge metropolitan area and being able to say that it's guaranteed not to be developed, not to be blocked off, is quite a selling point. This is going to be preserved forever. So many places I played as a kid are now developed.

For people who have never had an opportunity to be up in the mountains, the trail could serve as an outdoor classroom. You could nurture kids to become conservation-minded and teach them about wildlife and nature--the earlier the better.

Any time I can get out in the mountains on a pretty day, I'm usually out there. One great area is near the missing link. It's an offshoot of it, a canyon where you hike down this narrow stream bed, zig-zagging all the way down and it eventually leads you to these beautiful rocks that have been smoothed by the rains over the years and by the river when it gets a little more wild. It leads you into these beautiful pools of water that are 12 feet deep. You can swim in them and there's no one around. The trail itself is litter-free and even footprint-free. It was amazing to think that this was within half an hour of Los Angeles and basically untouched and undisturbed. I probably went through about four rolls of film just on that hike alone.

Our campaign is to raise the money for the missing link, and it's so hard because there are so many other worthy causes. I have a photo album of stuff I've taken. If I really want to do a hard sell, I'll bring that along. I have pictures, and people say there's no way that was taken in the Santa Monica Mountains and I say, yes it was, during wildflower season, or three years ago after the fires. After a fire, the wildflowers just explode in colors.

[The recently approved] Proposition A will allocate matching funds, so whatever we can raise they will match, up to $2 million. We're so close now.

The Mountains Conservancy Foundation can be reached at (310) 589-2400. The Mountains Education Program offers low-cost bus service to L.A. city schools and schools in unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County: (310) 454-1395. Scenes along the Backbone Trail.

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