Thousands of picnickers and gold prospectors park every weekend along a two-lane road overlooking the East Fork of the San Gabriel River, then trundle down to the mountain creek with ice chests, boomboxes, shovels, sluice boxes and baby carriers strung with diapers.
They litter, light campfires, defecate in the wild, dig for gold and engage in many other banned activities along the river. U.S. Forest Service rangers try in vain to curtail the abuses but are hopelessly outnumbered.
Last Sunday, no rangers were in sight at a popular swimming hole where the air smelled of campfires and makeshift toilets in nearby bushes.
A young man hunted birds with a BB gun. A few yards upstream, half a dozen gold prospectors were digging deep holes and dragging massive boulders across the river with steel cables attached to winches.
Clad in a white robe and standing waist-deep in water, Pastor Juan Morales smiled as congregants of Jesus Fuente de Vida Eterna in the City of Industry marched solemnly into the current to be baptized.
Church members raised their hands in prayer and appreciation each time Morales dunked someone in the name of Jesus Christ.
“We’ve been coming here four times a year for seven years because it is beautiful and clean,” Morales said in Spanish.
Beautiful and clean may have been an apt description in the past. But it doesn’t fit today. Although water quality monitors say the East Fork is safe to swim in, the vicinity of the swimming hole was fouled by dozens of dirty diapers and, on some rocks midstream, human feces.
“I’ve lost count of the times I’ve pleaded with the Forest Service to get the trash out of the river,” said Mark Yeltsin, manager of the Camp Williams Cafe, the only commercial establishment on the East Fork. “They have a stock answer: ‘Sorry. We don’t have the resources.’ ”
Tom Contreras, supervisor of the 640,000-acre Angeles National Forest, said a few more rangers and cleanup crews would certainly enhance his ability to enforce laws on the river, but budget restraints have made that all but impossible. “We have one full-time technician assigned to that area -- I wish we had more,” Contreras said.
Environmental and community groups say conditions have reached critical mass, not only on the river but across the San Gabriel Mountains. Something needs to change.
“We desperately need a new vision and management plan for the East Fork and the entire range,” said Juanna Torres, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club. “What we’ve got up there now isn’t working.”
San Gabriel Mountains Forever, a coalition of community and environmental groups including the Sierra Club and Friends of the River, is backing a plan that seeks to balance the crush of tourists with conservation. Essentially, it would transform the San Gabriels into a national recreational area co-managed by the National Park Service. The designation would make it eligible for additional federal resources, including law enforcement officers, interpretive signs and trash collection.
The National Park Service is completing a study of the proposal for submission to Congress and possible authorization next year.
Without any improvements, the San Gabriels will continue to suffer from being an enormous backyard for Southern California.
East Fork Road and California 39, the winding mountain highway that provides the only access to Crystal Lake and other recreational areas north of the East Fork, are patrolled by Forest Service rangers, the California Highway Patrol, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, firefighters and Caltrans crews. Last Sunday, authorities were swamped with reports of car burglaries, drug deals, belligerent gold prospectors, rowdy parties, overturned vehicles, lost hikers and illegal campfires.
In August 2010, a ranger was beaten and left unconscious on the East Fork in a case that has been referred to the FBI and remains under investigation.
A month ago, a vehicle driving through dry brush just off East Fork Road sparked a fire that blackened more than 4,000 acres of the San Gabriel watershed, which provides Los Angeles County with 33% of its water.
Refuse has been a health concern since 2000, when the California Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered the Forest Service to reduce trash levels in the East Fork to zero within three years. In response, rangers and volunteers were stationed at popular picnic sites to direct visitors to roadside trash bins and provide them with information about environmental issues and litter laws. They also posted bilingual “No Littering” signs.
That strategy was abandoned a few years later because of budget cuts. Since then, the number of visitors to the East Fork has mushroomed to about 15,000 people a day on the big weekends of summer.
Compounding problems, gold prospectors developed a militant attitude toward rangers after learning that the ban on mining in the San Gabriels is based on a 1928 policy that does not include penalties.
Now, in a social dynamic peculiar to the East Fork, rangers crack down on prospectors by citing them for such things as “diverting the flow of the river” or “defacing the forest,” while miners attempt to win sympathy and avoid harassment by picking up trash.
Such quirky rhythms have made regulars of prospectors such as Richard Skow, 57. Pushing a shovel deep into river gravel, Skow said, “We’re the real stewards of this river. I filled three bags with trash this morning alone.”