The San Gabriel Mountains are the backdrop of Los Angeles. Steep, rugged and often capped with snow, the range is a valuable source of clean water and makes up 70% of L.A. County's open space. It's home to stunning waterfalls, Native American sites and endangered wildlife, such as the Nelson's bighorn sheep and the mountain yellow-legged frog. Yet despite its prominence and value to the region, the range is significantly underfunded.
The mountains draw more than 3 million people a year, with most of the visitors spending time in the lower elevations closest to the foothill cities. But the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the land, doesn't have the money or staff to maintain these high-traffic areas. As a result, the natural beauty is marred by graffiti, garbage and illegal campfires, and paths, picnic sites and creeks are often littered with broken glass and used diapers. Signs are broken, some areas are closed for lack of maintenance and some trails have been left to crumble.
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) introduced a bill this year to turn the 655,000-acre range into a National Recreation Area, which would bring in National Park Service oversight, money and a new emphasis on conservation and recreation. Chu's bill is the better way to protect the mountains, but with Congress deadlocked, it has stalled. So she has asked President Obama to use his executive power to designate the San Gabriel Mountains a national monument.
We support the monument designation. But we do so with open eyes and some skepticism as to whether it would end the chronic underfunding. Supporters say monument status would result in more rangers, restrooms and trash pickup, as well as new hiking, biking, fishing and camping opportunities. But that's incredibly optimistic. The president's proclamation would come with no new funding. The monument would still be managed by the cash-strapped Forest Service, and local managers would probably still have to spend about 60% of their budgets on wildfire prevention.
On the upside, the designation would prioritize recreation, so more of the money left over after fire suppression could go to trails, signs and rangers. Monument status could also help nonprofits fundraise or apply for grants for environmental restoration or educational programs. And nothing stops Congress from designating the range a National Recreation Area in the future.
Obama should specify that long-standing uses, from mountain biking and snowmobiling to hunting and fishing, be allowed to continue under the designation. Ultimately, support for a San Gabriel Mountains National Monument comes down to the hope that monument status will provide the money and leadership needed to protect this remarkable natural resource in our backyard. Though monument status may not save the mountains, the status quo is not acceptable.