Since 2005, the Park Service has been studying the San Gabriel Mountains and the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo watersheds to see if they met the criteria for inclusion in the Park Service in one way or another – either as a full fledged National Park or a National Recreation Area. In 2009 they released their findings – the areas did indeed merit inclusion in the Park System, and the three proposals ranged from a full-fledged takeover of the Angeles National Forest to a winding system of protected parkland along rivers given new federal protection (and in some cases Wild and Scenic status). The Park Service released its final recommendation yesterday and although they didn’t go for declaring everything a National Recreation Area, our local wilderness could see a LOT of benefits if the recommendations are enacted.
Instead of selecting one of their previous proposals, the Park Service instead recommended a combination of alternatives. Under their finalized recommendation, the San Gabriel Foothills not already part of the Angeles National Forest, the western Puente Hills, and half mile corridors around the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo Rivers would be considered the San Gabriel Unit of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (I know, geography be damned) and be administered by the Park Service, local parks and private landowners much in the same way the Santa Monica Mountains NRA is now.
The San Gabriel Mountains themselves would NOT be included in the new National Recreation Area, although the Park Service said the mountains were “nationally significant for their geologic resources, high biodiversity, dynamic river systems, and the long history of scientific study.” Instead, the Angeles National Forest would remain a National Forest but receive additional support and oversight from the Park Service to “steward watershed resources and ecosystems and improve recreational opportunities,” specifically by prioritizing funding for “resource protection, recreation, and education, and establish(ing) mechanisms to increase funding for facilities, maintenance, ecological restoration, visitor management.” The Angeles would also gain the ability to enter into more cooperative management agreements with local conservancies and to accept donations from organizations and philanthropists to improve facilities and resources.”
Translation: They get more money to hire rangers, increase law enforcement and safety, build new and maintain existing trails, and finally start tackling the enormous backlog of repairs and improvements that comes when you work for a perpetually under-funded branch of the Department of Agriculture.
In addition to all these tangible benefits, I also think the literal and figurative connection of the Puente Hills and river watersheds to the San Gabriel Mountains is pretty fantastic, too. It’s a great way of providing the potential for green belts in a dense urban area, and the educational benefits of showing how our drinking water is tied to our mountains are important. And although I (as well as the main boosters of this issue, San Gabriel Mountains Forever) would love the entire Angeles National Forest to get the increased recognition and protection that comes with being a National Recreation Area (I’m especially missing those Wild and Scenic designations for the upper reaches of the San Gabriel River), the fact that it’s getting their help and more funding is great.
The recommendation now moves to Congress, which will have to pass legislation implementing the plan spelled out by the Park Service. So, you know, keep your fingers crossed. Or better yet, bug your Congressperson.