President Obama plans to announce Friday that he will set aside roughly half of the San Gabriel Mountains as a national monument, bringing stronger federal protections to the range to shield it from crowding and pollution.
Obama will designate about 350,000 acres of public land in the Angeles National Forest as the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, officials said. It will be the 11th time Obama has used his executive powers to establish or expand a national monument without congressional approval.
To address fierce opposition from San Bernardino County officials and other critics, the new monument is expected to exclude portions of the range extending into the western reaches of the county, including the mountain communities of Wrightwood and Mt. Baldy. Some fear the new status will hamper growth and fire safety.
Stretching from Santa Clarita to San Bernardino, the San Gabriel watershed is within a 90-minute drive of 17 million people. It provides Los Angeles County with 70% of its open space and roughly 35% of its water. The rugged slopes and canyons attract more than 3 million visitors a year and are home to rare and endangered species, including Nelson's bighorn sheep, mountain yellow-legged frogs and Santa Ana suckers.
The chronically underfunded U.S. Forest Service currently manages the mountains, where graffiti, trash, crowding, crime and wildfires are constant problems. Without uniformed rangers on patrol, some careless visitors toss soiled diapers into rivers, build illegal fires in parched brush lands and are injured or killed hiking on dangerous trails.
Under a national monument designation, the Forest Service would give priority to managing the safety of visitors, protecting natural resources and installing improvements, including new parking areas, restrooms, signs, educational kiosks and trails, federal officials said.
U.S. Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park), who introduced a bill this year to address problems in the 655,000-acre range, said the Obama administration "assured me that the mountains will get the additional resources they desperately need. Those resources could come in the form of an additional ranger, or a budget increase for the Forest Service."
Chu said she regards the monument as a first step. A bill she has introduced would bring even greater protection and enforcement powers to the range by converting it to a national recreation area co-managed by the Forest Service and the National Park Service.
The monument designation follows an 14-year campaign by San Gabriel Mountains Forever, a coalition of environmental and community groups, including the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and Friends of the River. Supporters insist it will not affect adjacent state, local and private property, or existing recreational uses such as hunting, fishing, hiking and off-roading on designated roads.
But Obama's move is drawing strong criticism from mountain residents and others who say they have been left in the dark about the effects of stepped up federal authority.
Anticipating the new designation, about 150 people protested in front of Chu's Pasadena office on Monday. Many of them were unsure about its potential effects on private property rights, flood control and emergency services.
The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors recently approved a resolution opposing a monument designation in their region, where there still has not been a public meeting held to discuss the issues.
"As far as I know, there's no more money that Congress has available to fund this proposal in some of our most fire-prone areas," said Janice Rutherford, a San Bernardino County supervisor. "We asked that they leave us the heck out of out it."
Residents of Mt. Baldy and Wrightwood are concerned about the ability of local fire agencies to battle wildfires if they are encircled by national monument lands. They also worry about fees and land use restrictions that could stunt local economies.
"We don't want any part of this thing," said Ron Ellingson, owner of a lodge and ski lift business in Mt. Baldy, a hamlet on the eastern edge of the proposed monument lands. "Some people are concerned they're going to put up a gate at the bottom of the road and start charging people to come up here."
Daniel Rossman, a spokesman for San Gabriel Mountains Forever, said such concerns were unfounded.
"The designation will not infringe on existing rights," Rossman said. "It will open up new recreational opportunities without sacrificing the natural beauty of the San Gabriel Mountains."