Milt McAuley was first introduced to the Santa Monica Mountains 36 years ago, courtesy of a Sierra Club hike. In the time since, he has returned to the mountains thousands of times, hiking or bushwhacking his way through virtually every known route in the range.
These treks inspired McAuley to pick up a pen and to write about the trails he hiked and the things he saw. To date, he has self-published seven guides to the Santa Monicas, all of which have sold tens of thousands of copies. His prose may not be reminiscent of Hemingway, but McAuley’s books by far remain the most detailed and accurate of the local hiking guides.
McAuley, 79, is a longtime resident of Canoga Park. After a 21-year career as an Air Force pilot, he retired in 1961 and worked in the aerospace industry for nine years. On the home front, he founded Canyon Publishing and has kept a keen eye on issues affecting the Santa Monicas, from development to the long-proposed plan to construct the 70-mile-long Backbone Trail from the Pacific Palisades to Point Mugu.
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Question: Your books always drive home the point that you’re amazed every time you set foot in the Santa Monicas. Why?
McAuley: I can’t just walk a trail once and get the feel for it. The trail is different every time you walk it. The wind might be blowing differently or different plants might be in bloom. Yesterday, I must have seen 50 different identifiable wildflowers. Each time on the trail I find something new that I didn’t know existed there before.
Q: How much have the Santa Monicas changed since you started walking them?
A: There is a lot more development--but there are also a lot more people who accept trails through their property. These easements were almost unheard of in these mountains until the past few years.
For example, a lady bought a house in the mountains. An easement for the Backbone Trail already existed there. She knew little about trails and she put up a barricade to the trail.
Then one day the National Park Service sent two people, me and a work crew I was directing, to the lady’s house.
The first thing the park service wanted to do was cut a four-foot-wide strip through this lady’s flowers. I pointed out that we didn’t need to do that--the bigger problem was the rock sitting in the middle of the trail about 250 yards away.
Well, the lady heard me saying this, and I was no longer the enemy. She was even going to put a water fountain on her property for hikers. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out because her house burned down in a wildfire.
Q: From what you see on the trails, how healthy are the mountains from an ecological point of view?
A: As much as I like trails, they don’t do much good for the environment, although they allow you to appreciate the environment.
Some of our trails are the cause of introducing plants we don’t want introduced. For example, many plants are propagated by seeds floating through the air. When they find an open place on a new trail, the seeds come down and that is where they sprout.
On the other hand, some of the plants do belong. In Hondo Canyon there are millions of bush poppies this year. When the fire wiped out the chaparral, the bush poppies sprouted--their seeds were probably dormant for 50 years. Although some of the bush poppies are intruding on the trail, they are also stabilizing the soil.
This will go on for a few more years. In the meantime, the chaparral is six to 18 inches high. In another few years they will be the dominant plant and they will crowd out the bush poppies.
Q: Do you see more or less wildlife in the mountains?
A: Less. It has been several years since I have seen a mountain lion. I never did see that many bobcats, but I haven’t seen one in two or three years.
As the environment gets to be more and more intruded upon, I think we are going to lose more wildlife.
Here’s an example. I was out one day and saw a deer running. This struck me as strange--why is a deer running in the middle of the day? Just up the trail there was a man who told me his dog found the deer and chased it out.
I told the man he should be ashamed. The dog should never have been there in the first place. But he was proud that his dog was doing damage to the environment.
Q: Are you happy with the way the Backbone Trail is progressing?
A: When the Backbone Trail was first proposed--this is 10 or 12 years ago--some people from Sacramento came down to talk about it. I told them I will see it finished. When I said that, they just laughed.
I’m not satisfied with the fact that the Backbone Trail land is not a priority. Land that should have been acquired was not bought. Someone else bought it and is now waiting for a profit. If they can just get the land, we have the volunteers to build it.
On the other hand, I promised not to die before the trail was done, so maybe I can thank them for my longevity.
Q: Are you encouraged that the state government might approve a land deal with the federal government to acquire the old Frank Capra estate?
A: I’m really pleased--it is essential that we have this property because all the planning maps show part of the trail going through the Capra property. The property is also very beautiful. If they can pull it off, this is a major acquisition.
Q: What about the money that Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) got earlier this year to finish the trail?
A: I have not yet seen the money hit the ground--until it is signed, sealed and delivered, I don’t believe it. I don’t know if $5.5 million will do it.
Don’t get me wrong. I like Sherman. I think he is very sincere in what he is doing. He has been behind the Santa Monicas all along. He has done some good things in freeing money--but once he frees it, he can’t always control it.
Q: It seems like few people realize how unique the Backbone Trail is--few cities have a trail of this length or mountains like the Santa Monicas in their backyard. What is your vision for the trail?
A: I am of the belief that the Santa Monica Mountains serve more people that are close by than any other comparable area in the country. It is long overdue to have a major park there, and the only way to have that park is to have a major trail like the Backbone with feeder trails leading to the coast and the [San Fernando] Valley.
What I would like to see is to have the trail set up so that an organization like the Sierra Club or the Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council can have a group of people come in and walk the entire length of the trail while a shuttle carries their backpacks between the trail camps. This would let people walk the trail with someone who knows the area and can interpret the trail.
Q: The trail camps seem like the key to the system, but there are few now.
A: I want the trail camps to be every seven miles along the trail. It was in the original plan, but no one has followed up on it. There is a camp in Topanga State Park and there are two camps in Malibu Creek State Park. After that, there are none until Point Mugu.
Q: Sounds like you would like to see something similar to the hut system in New Zealand, where there are huts that can sleep a dozen or so backpackers every few miles along the major trail.
A: We could do that, but we would have to do a lot of things differently. State Parks is set up to handle it, but the National Park Service is not. Sometimes you really have to hold the agencies’ feet to the fire to get them to do anything.
Q: Is it funding or intent?
A: The agencies here need at least twice what they are getting. They are not even holding their own right now.
There are virtually no facilities being constructed in the parks. The ones they build are built well--there just isn’t enough of them. And, they are not being positioned along the Backbone Trail.