Prayer and the San Gabriel Mountains

The idyllic sounds of rustling leaves and cascading snowmelt mixed with Scripture readings Saturday morning during a pre-Easter service held in a shady Angeles National Forest glen overlooking the east fork of the San Gabriel River.

About 35 worshipers from throughout Southern California had gathered by the river to break bread, pray and show support for an ongoing campaign to bolster federal protections for the San Gabriel Mountains.

The service was organized by San Gabriel Mountains Forever, a coalition of environmental and community groups including the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and Friends of the River. The group wants to add 30,000 acres to three existing wilderness areas -- Sheep Mountain, Cucamonga and San Gabriel -- and have 46 miles of the San Gabriel River, San Antonio Creek and Lytle Creek preserved under Wild and Scenic River System protections.

Designation in the wild rivers system is the primary method for preventing construction of environmentally harmful dam projects. And classifying land as federal wilderness helps head off such activities as mining and transmission line construction while allowing recreational uses.

In his sermon under the pines, the Rev. Peter Laarman, executive director of a group called Progressive Christians Uniting, acknowledged that the pre-Easter service was not traditional and that some people “might feel weird about messing with this most sacred day in the Christian calendar.”

“But God is grand and generous enough to raise Jesus up from the dead,” he told worshipers seated on blankets and folding chairs, “and bring all the natural elements that surround us into our ceremony on this bright April morning.”

The service ended with hikes along the river and up serpentine trails with panoramic views of proposed wilderness areas. Worshipers also wrote letters seeking support from Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), whose district includes much of the crescent-shaped 650,000-acre mountain range.

As weekend miners panned for gold in the shade of nearby alders, Friends of the River spokeswoman Carolin Atchison said the proposed protections would preserve for future generations a region she described as “a wild, gorgeous scene that takes my breath away: wildflowers, pine trees, snow-capped peaks, a river charged by tributaries and snowmelt.”

The San Gabriel River takes shape in three forks that drain a lacework of pristine mountain creeks. The forks converge in San Gabriel Canyon, six miles above the San Gabriel Valley. The river ranks among the steepest in the United States, plunging from 9,900-foot headwaters to the ocean in about 70 miles.

The watershed it emerges from provides Los Angeles County with 70% of its open space and more than one-third of its water. It is habitat for endangered species, including the mountain yellow-legged frog.

San Gabriel Mountains Forever is also backing a plan to designate the range as a national recreational area eligible for additional federal resources, including law enforcement personnel, interpretive signs and hiking trails.

The designation would be made by the National Park Service, which is conducting a “special resource study” of the San Gabriel Mountains and watershed. The study includes draft alternatives for new collaborative approaches to managing the range now run by the U.S. Forest Service. A final recommendation could come in 2011.

“This worship service is one of the ways we are starting to get the word out. These mountains are in Los Angeles’ backyard and they are very, very special,” said Annette Kondo, a spokeswoman for the Wilderness Society.