First Meeting for San Gabriel Mountains National Monument Exceeds Capacity

Hundreds of people trying to attend the first meeting on the proposed San Gabriel Mountains National Monument were prevented from entering the building, as the 410-person venue had reached capacity before the event had even begun.

San Gabriel Mountains Forever – the coalition responsible for much of the push to increase protection for the San Gabriel Mountains, whether it be in National Recreation Area or National Monument form – aggressively encouraged its members to show up to support the legislation.  It seems people listened … although it also seems there was a bit of miscommunication as to what, exactly, this meeting was for and how big a part citizens could play in it.

I arrived in Baldwin Park a little before 4PM and was greeted by a parking lot packed nearly to capacity and a huge crowd of people seemingly waiting to get inside the building. When I approached the door I was told that the building was at capacity and that no one else was being let inside the building. There was no way for anyone outside to hear what was going on inside. Several extremely patient Forest Service employees stood at the doors and informed round after round of disappointed citizens that they would not be able to participate in the meeting, which featured Congresswoman Judy Chu, Los Angeles County Supervisor-elect Hilda Solis, and representatives for Senator Barbara Boxer, Congressman Adam Schiff, Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon, and Congresswoman Grace Napolitano.

IMG_9944 After about 20 minutes, Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Randy Moore came outside and addressed the crowd. Moore reiterated that the building was full and apologized for the small venue and late notification (press releases were sent out by the Angeles National Forest Monday at noon and in Spanish around 4PM). IMG_9945 In an unfortunate foreshadowing of much of the ‘discussion’ sure to come at future meetings, a man wondered aloud whether or not the people who made it inside the building were on a “partisan list” of supporters, notified earlier than the unwashed masses stuck outside.

Moore said “our intent is to engage everyone in this process,” noted that the meeting itself was being recorded and would be posted by San Gabriel Mountains Forever, and that additional meetings would be scheduled at other locations in the near future. Moore urged the people gathered to fill out public comment cards in person or online, although at the time of publication the URL we were directed to does not have anything about the proposed National Monument. He stuck around for a few minutes to answer a question or two then returned back inside the building.

Despite repeatedly being told they weren’t getting inside, no one in the crowd seemed eager to leave. A group of Boy Scouts, students from El Monte High School, and others assembled under the San Gabriel Mountains Forever banner for some cheers and photo ops – and most seemed hopeful that we would get to go inside at some point or some more information would arrive. IMG_9952 IMG_9953 About an hour after the event started, Ranger Sherry Rollman appeared. No one, she said, would be allowed into the building. She also clarified that the meeting was a presentation and panel discussion and NOT a town hall or Q&A, which surprised many of the people gathered outside – myself included. This was perhaps due to some of the language used to motivate people to show up to the meeting, which encouraged people to “Tell the Obama Administration to Protect the San Gabriels” and that “we should tell the Administration to designate this magnificent place as a national monument.” IMG_9955 At this point the crowd started to get a little restless. An older couple asked if people would be allowed inside if others exited – still, the answer was no. Another 15 minutes later, the venue security came out and ordered the crowd to disperse. IMG_9957 The crowd moved back from the front door – but most people didn’t leave. IMG_9959 Finally, Regional Forester Moore returned – along with former Angeles National Forest Supervisor and current San Bernardino Forest Supervisor Judy Noiron and U.S. Chief Forester Tom Tidwell, who was in from Washington, D.C. for the meeting. Moore again apologized for the building’s lack of capacity, saying it was “the biggest venue we could find at this notice.” A man standing close to the front of the group listened to the apology and insinuated that the entire event was an orchestrated “dog and pony show,” and that people were being prevented from having their input. Moore reiterated that no one who couldn’t make it inside was being left out of any sort of decision-making process – that the meeting was only to present an ideal vision for the mountains and collect comment cards. No decisions will be made without public input, he said, and there would be plenty of other opportunities to express opinions in person and via comment cards or electronically as the process continued. IMG_9962 Chief Tidwell took the floor next and – finally – gave the people outside some tangible information. Tidwell thanked everyone for making it out to Baldwin Park and apologized for the facilities. He said they had tremendously underestimated the turnout for the event and stressed that this was only the first meeting of many. IMG_9964 At this point, a group in the back of the crowd started shouting “National Monument Now,” interrupting Chief Tidwell’s explanation of what was going on inside. Several people tried to explain to the chanters that the nation’s top-ranking Forest Service official was trying to provide information but the group seemed intent on finishing their chant.

Tidwell continued after they quieted down, saying that even if a National Monument or Recreation Area doesn’t happen, the Forest Service is still working on getting more resources to the Angeles National Forest to tackle its long backlog of repair and restoration projects. A Monument designation, he said, would only come about if the community wanted it – “an open, transparent, collaborative process” and not through decisions made behind closed doors.

He continued, saying the proposed Monument was interesting to the Forest Service because of the way it linked the wilderness of the San Gabriels with the lesser-known Puente Hills through the surrounding communities along the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo Rivers. Such a Monument would better connect urban communities to their wilderness and provide new open space in a region that is desperately park-poor. Tidwell also allayed some of the popular fears stoked by anti-government groups, saying “all existing recreation facilities would remain in place” in a new Monument – and that a National Monument designation “has no effect on private land.”

Someone from the crowd asked Tidwell if the Forest Service was for or against the National Monument designation. Tidwell is most likely not at liberty to use his position to sway opinion before public comments have been collected, so he gave a cautiously optimistic answer. “I’m very interested in the potential for designation,” he said, “but there are also plenty of challenges. A Monument designation does provide opportunities for the Forest Service to shift its priorities and reach out for new public and private partnerships, but any decisions made would have to be done with the support of the local communities.”

Tidwell then went into the history of the Angeles National Forest, saying it was originally established to protect watersheds for Los Angeles but under the Forest Service “Land of Many Uses” banner had also become home to the energy and communications industries as well as different recreation types. He specifically mentioned both motorized and non-motorized recreational uses and said that all of them – hiking, fishing, hunting, OHV use – would still be allowed in a National Monument designation. In another surprising statement, Tidwell closed by saying that none of the maps of the proposed area floating around the internet are official – only rough ideas or proposals. After that, the Forest Service officials returned inside the building. So, to recap (or TL;DR if you’re a Redditor):

  •  The meeting was not open to verbal public comment, town hall discussion, or questions and answers
  •  More meetings in other locations are on the way for public comment and questions
  •  In the proposed National Monument, no new regulations or restrictions on current recreation or industrial use would be enacted
  •  No private land would be seized by eminent domain for the Monument
  •  Any “official map” you’ve seen of the monument is a draft, and the proposed boundaries have not yet been officially drawn
  •  It seems, based on Chief Tidwell’s statements, that the Forest Service would continue to manage the land under a new Monument designation
  • No mention was made of entrance fees or whether or not the current Adventure Pass system would continue in a new Monument, although much of Tidwell’s statements highlighted increased access for people

After the Forest Service officials left, most people continued lingering around the building’s entrance. There were a vocal number who were not supporting the designation – ranging from members of the Kizh / Gabrieleño Nation – who would like more recognition of the Native American sites and history inside the San Gabriels and felt they have been left out of the decision-making process – to residents with just a general anti-government attitude who seemed to believe no one in the Forest Service could speak a syllable of truth.

The majority sentiment outside seemed to be in favor of a Monument or National Recreation Area designation, although due to lack of information going into and coming out of this first meeting it seemed like many supporters were coasting on positive momentum. One person I talked to had very specific reasons for supporting the Monument designation, however.

Andrew Yip, of the advocacy group Bike San Gabriel Valley, had a perspective I haven’t heard much concerning this new Monument. Primarily a road cyclist, he was excited about the potential the new Monument had for creating a network of bike paths through green belts from the foothill cities to the Puente Hills, where he now lives.

Yip said while he was growing up in the San Gabriel Valley he never considered the Hills or the San Gabriel Mountains as recreation areas. It was only after moving away and discovering hiking that he returned home and realized just how much was in his backyard, and he hopes a new San Gabriel Mountains National Monument will help more Southern Californians recognize that at an earlier age. He said he was also enthusiastic about the increased resources a San Gabriel Mountains National Monument would have, noting that the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area will bus kids from Puente out to the coastal ranges for an experience in nature when getting in touch with an environment they actually live in could have a stronger impact on their lives. “If people don’t enjoy the wilderness now and build their passion for it,” he said, “they won’t protect it for the next generation.”

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