PASADENA — Rep. Adam Schiff on Friday announced the start of the long-awaited study of the region's hillsides, which could lead to federal protection of the local area.
The announcement was a major milestone for Schiff (D-Burbank), who began lobbying for the so-called "Rim of the Valley" study in 2001. The study was approved as part of federal legislation signed by President George W. Bush in 2008.
Two years later, officials allocated $500,000 to begin the study, which will start with an exhaustive public outreach and exploration process this summer.
"It's a long process . . . I'm glad we have finally reached the stage of this study getting underway," Schiff said Friday to a group of stakeholders and community activists gathered at the Eaton Canyon Nature Center.
The final recommendations could help preserve the more 500,000 acres above the San Fernando, La Crescenta, Santa Clarita Simi and Conejo valleys that are known collectively as the Rim of the Valley.
The study will create a "conservation strategy" and examine the feasibility of including some or all of the land into the federally protected Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
It will include public outreach, analysis of the wildlife and natural resources found in the mountain sides and how the federal government may get involved in protecting them.
Federal protection could essentially limit development in the open space areas which officials say are losing linkages essential for the maintenance of local ecosystems.
"If they become completely disconnected, we are going to lose much of it," Schiff said.
The study and corresponding legislation has been hailed by local environmental activists for that very reason.
"I think it could help the area greatly from the standpoint that the piece-meal fashion that cities tend to have evolved in oftentimes will leave wilderness areas as island," said Richard Toyon, president of the Glendale-Crescenta Volunteers Organized In Conserving the Environment, or V.O.I.C.E., a nonprofit dedicated to open-space conservation.
The study area consists of parts of the Santa Monica, Santa Susana, San Gabriel, and Verdugo mountains, as well as the San Rafael Hills and adjacent connector areas to the Los Padres and San Bernardino national forests.
Officials acknowledged that the study would take several years to complete with a final report to Congress scheduled for 2014. Any implementation of the study's recommendations would require additional action by federal or state lawmakers.
"We've come a long way," said state Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge), one of several local lawmakers who lobbied for the original legislation. "We still have a long way to go."
Still, the study has drawn opposition from some property rights activists and other landowners who have expressed concern that it could result in a "land grab," leaving private land owners with more restrictions and fewer development options.
"Ultimately, people in Los Angeles think they are going to get something with the Rim of the Valley. But they are really going to lose something," said Chuck Cushman, a former California resident who has tracked the study's progress through his involvement with the American Land Rights Assn., a Washington state-based nonprofit.
Federal officials have pledged that potential future land purchases would involve only "willing sellers" and that eminent domain would not be used.
Jody Noiron, forest supervisor for the Angeles National Forest, said the study will need to balance preservation with the growing desire for public access to the land.
"Our challenge is we've got to find a way to get the other 17-plus million people in the Los Angeles Basin to care as much as we do about what the future of this land should be," she said.