As a graduate student at California State University Northridge in the mid-1970s, the late Marge Feinberg began rabble-rousing for a “green belt” of wildlife habitats, parks and recreational areas encircling the San Fernando Valley.
She even copyrighted the title she devised in her master’s thesis — the Rim of the Valley Parks — a moniker that evoked the romance of the West’s rugged peaks and sage-scented canyons.
Over the years, politicians and conservationists took up Feinberg’s cause, and now, more than four decades after she proposed the idea, the National Park Service has resolved that a much larger network of mountains, forests, valleys and rivers merits inclusion in its Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
The notion that it makes sense to preserve wild lands is not necessarily ingrained in a nation that was once hellbent on taming the West. But it has been present in California at least since the latter 19th century, when John Muir traipsed through the Sierra Nevada and wrote of “whooping and howling at the vistas.”
More than a century later, Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff, backed by a broad coalition of proponents, is pushing to add as much as possible of the 1,000-square-mile Rim of the Valley Corridor to the national recreation area, even more than the option endorsed by the Park Service.
“Los Angeles is one of the rarest of big cities in America, with millions of people living in close proximity to nature, with mountain lions like P-22 and bears that eat the meatballs in your garage refrigerator,” the Burbank congressman said. “But, if we don’t act now to preserve these wildlife corridors, they will be gone for good and, along with them, a lot of what we love about Los Angeles.”
The urge to preserve is hardly new. The sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed New York City’s Central Park, sought to follow their father’s lead in Los Angeles by creating a large system of easily accessible public parks, playgrounds, beaches and forests to promote good health and economic vitality.
In a 1930 report, they urged the city to heed their advice or face the consequences. “Continued prosperity … will depend on providing needed parks, because, with the growth of a great metropolis here, the absence of parks will make living conditions less and less attractive, less and less wholesome.”
Leaders of the local Chamber of Commerce, who had commissioned the report, quietly shelved it, apparently viewing the land rights issues it raised as too explosive for their political good.
Since then, a growing number of urban planners, environmentalists and psychologists have argued that human beings have a fundamental need for access to nature and that this need has grown as people have clustered amid the concrete, asphalt and steel of cities.
Budget hawks and landowners, meanwhile, contend that preservation would be too costly, come with too many onerous restrictions and threaten property rights.
The Rim of the Valley territory that the park service studied circles not just the San Fernando Valley but also the Conejo, Simi, La Crescenta and Santa Clarita valleys in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
It is full of plummy geological features, parks and waterways (including a large swath of the Los Angeles River), and contains prime examples of rare habitats — from pine forest to chaparral, from coastal sage scrub and desert sagebrush to lightly forested grasslands known as oak savannas.
It encompasses the Arroyo Seco, the Verdugo Mountains and portions of the Simi Hills and Santa Susana Mountains. Some urban landmarks also would get wrapped up in the package: the Hollywood sign, the Rose Bowl, Hansen Dam, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and El Pueblo de Los Angeles, the site of the original Spanish settlement from which the megalopolis sprouted.
Advocates say adding acreage to the national recreation area would help preserve forests, fossil beds and Craftsman neighborhoods, and provide safe pathways for bobcats and pumas increasingly hemmed in by development and highways.
The designation, they say, would make the land available for future generations of city dwellers who need a break from freeway gridlock, hovering news helicopters, graffiti-splattered walls and the neon glare of Popeyes and Big Lots signs.
They say it also would help put the brakes on the sort of sprawling exurban development that has strained water and other resources, made firefighting more challenging and led to unfortunate interactions between wildlife and humans.
Kim Lamorie, president of the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation, a group of property owners in the Santa Monica Mountains, said that being part of a national recreation area has been a boon for her and her neighbors.
“For us, it’s a complete and utter enhancement,” Lamorie said. “Our [residents] are always competing to get the National Park Service … to purchase land in and around our homeowners associations and rural villages.... Property values go up when you’re surrounded by open space.”
But proponents of property rights and public use of public lands counter that the proposal could limit their ability, for example, to extract oil and minerals and drive or bicycle off-road.
“We want people to be able to enjoy their land, their trails, their roads, fishing, hunting, prospecting…,” said Barry Wetherby, a board member with Public Lands for the People and the California Trail Users Coalition.
Some Sierra Club members, he said, are so intent on returning land to some imagined pristine state that they want people to stay home and watch nature on TV.
“I think it’s asinine,” he said, “to turn this country back into what it was a long time ago.”
“It’s just another land grab,” said Debra Tash, who hopes to extract oil from her undeveloped land on Oat Mountain in the Santa Susana Mountains, in the northern San Fernando Valley. “It’s going to diminish private property rights and access to that land by the public.”
So far, the public has weighed in heavily for putting as much Rim of the Valley land as possible under the National Park Service umbrella, according to Rep. Schiff’s office.
Marissa Barbalato, 21, a singer-songwriter, lives at Sunset and Vine and feels that she is “never alone.” On Thursday, she puffed her way up the Mt. Hollywood Hiking Trail near the Griffith Observatory.
“It’s really peaceful,” she said. “It’s good for the soul. Life is stressful, and it’s nice to clear your head.”
Researchers say there’s science behind that sort of observation.
“People with that exposure have an easier time of recovering from stressful events, and they’re significantly better able to focus their attention,” said William Sullivan, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Anything we can do to make sure people have contact with green spaces on a regular basis is going to improve their health.”
Los Angeles is blessed with wilderness at its doorstep, said Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.” “Making that more accessible for [urban] kids, in particular, and their families,” he said, “is really important.”