What's Next for the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument?

The auditorium at the Eaton Canyon Nature Center was packed to capacity last night for a presentation and short question-and-answer session titled “San Gabriel Mountains National Monument – What’s Next?”

Organized by the Sierra Club, the event aimed to get people up to speed with the new National Monument so far and give a glimpse into some of the plans for the region’s future. Due to the lack of widespread reporting on the lead up to the Monument (except for some notable organizations like the San Gabriel Valley Tribune) and the nature of the National Monument process itself, there was – and remains – a lot of confusion about what, exactly is going on in the San Gabriels.

The event began with short presentations from the panel of speakers. The LA News Group’s Steve Scauzillo, Acting Supervisor of the Angeles National Forest and San Gabriel Mountains National Monument Daniel Lovato, Vice Chair of San Gabriel Mountains Forever Belinda Faustinos, Southern California Program Associate Edward Belden of the National Forest Foundation, and Managing Director of the Arroyo Seco Foundation Tim Brick. The panelists each brought their own perspective to the discussion and went a long way toward pulling back the veil on the National Monument Process. They were honest, direct, and willing to admit when they didn’t know the answers to questions. Those who attended the event were able to better understand how the Monument came to be, how new funding is being procured and used, and how really – no one seems to know why the front range and Arroyo Seco were left out of the Monument’s borders.

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Steve Scauzillo with a map of the original National Recreation Area proposed in 2003

Steve Scauzillo was the first to speak, and gave a brief history of the Monument timeline, including the original larger National Recreation Area proposed by then-Congresswoman Hilda Solis in 2003. Long story short, a National Park Service study found the region did, indeed qualify for inclusion in the National Park System, and gave several different options for ways that land management could work out. In a series of meetings and public comment periods, the public overwhelmingly favored the option that looked closest to Solis’ original wide-ranging plan, but the Park Service recommended the smallest (and strangest) option – including the foothills, Rio Hondo and San Gabriel River, and Puente Hills in a new “San Gabriel Unit of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.”

Scauzillo recounted how Representative Judy Chu stepped forward after Solis became Secretary of Labor and agreed to take on the legislative project of forming the San Gabriel Mountains as overseen by the Park Service. He also talked about speaking to the managers of another Forest Service-run National Recreation Area in northern California – Smith River NRA. That area became a National Recreation Area by an act of Congress in 1990, and some 20 years after its designation change, Scauzillo said the managers wished they hadn’t been ‘upgraded,’ saying “it’s obvious it was the wrong choice. Congress basically gave (Smith River) an unfunded mandate.”

In his closing remarks, Scauzillo also brought up the Monument’s surprise shrunken boundaries. “Before the Presidential declaration, the boundary included all of the Angeles National Forest. No one knew the boundaries would shrink again. Now the front range is gone, the Arroyo Seco is gone.” He closed showing some photos of Mount Lowe, an area rich in history and extremely popular with hikers that has been excluded from the current Monument. “Will those boundaries change again?” he asked. “We don’t know.”

Those looking for some concrete numbers and plans were happy to have Deputy Supervisor and Acting Supervisor of the Angeles National Forest and San Gabriel Mountains National Monument Daniel Lovato at the podium. He began by saying if there was a way to describe what it was like in the Forest Service office right now, it was “very busy.” Echoing comments I have heard from other Forest Service employees, Lovato said working on the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument was a “once in a lifetime opportunity” for his staff and that many people were already putting in after-hours work on the preliminary plans for the mountains.

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Acting Supervisor of the ANF and SGMNM Daniel Lovato

Lovato mentioned that the new San Gabriel Mountains National Monument is only the eighth National Monument in the country to be managed by the Forest Service, and by far the largest – but that he is working hard to ensure that even though the Monument is the Shiny New Thing right now, the National Forest portion of the San Gabriels is still getting the resources and attention it needs.

3.3 million dollars in additional funding has already made its way to the National Monument, along with extra resources for partnerships from the National Forest office in Washington, D.C. They now have the resources to hire three important coordinator positions as well as restaffing Visitor Centers with paid Forest Service employees (interviews begin in late April). Those partnerships are also bringing in enough money to run new “Adopt a Watershed” restoration and repair programs in the East Fork of the San Gabriel River (which is in the Monument) as well as the Big Tujunga Creek (which is not), as well as launching a new Field Ranger Program for youth, which will put generalist rangers back on the trails in the San Gabriels with a primary focus on increasing public contact and helping visitors have a better experience in the mountains.

Three million dollars sounds like a lot of money, but it doesn’t go quite as far as people may want it to. “If we replaced all of the signs in the National Monument at once, that alone would cost us $1.1 million,” Lovato said. “So we’re trying to improve what we have.”

A common criticism of the National Monument process is that the public has been “locked out” or “kept in the dark,” despite the more than ten years of planning and public meetings. Lovato clarified the next steps – the Forest Service now has three years to complete the Monument Management Plan. They have begun working with consultants inside the Forest and Park Services, and Lovato announced a series of ten public meetings will begin in May all over Southern California. “We want to make sure we’re reaching all users (of the mountains) with meetings,” he said.

Belinda Faustinos is the current Chair of San Gabriel Mountains Forever but has a long history of advocating for Southern California’s open spaces. She previously served as an Executive Officer for the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, a Commissioner on the California Coastal Commission, and has worked on the National Park Service Advisory Board. Like most of the speakers, she opened up with her own experience with the San Gabriels. “As kids, we grew up in Boyle Heights,” she said. “We went to Sequoia and Yosemite, but never went to the San Gabriels because we didn’t really know they were there.”

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Faustinos gets the crowd going

Faustinos spoke with energy about how San Gabriel Mountains Forever had worked with locals in the mountains for years trying to establish new Wilderness designations and to expand the existing ones with fully bipartisan efforts. Republican congressmen introduced several bills to expand the Wilderness in the Angeles National Forest, but only Magic Mountain was able to make it through Congress (also introduced by a Republican). She sang the praises of the coalitions and groups that worked to push the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument forward and said that same strategy would be important in the future. “There was a time when government was seen as a sort of panacea for issues like this. Those times are long gone and may never return,” she said, “so now it’s all about partnerships.”

Faustinos emphasized that the way the Monument is going to be set up is entirely dependent on citizen involvement. “Our number one goal is to ensure the success of this Monument,” she said. “It has to come from you and be the Monument you want it to be.”

She also said it was a mistake to leave out the front range and Arroyo Seco and that she is working with Congressional offices to lay the groundwork for future expansion of the Monument as well as the establishment of new Wilderness areas in Castaic and Condor Peak, expansion of existing Wilderness areas inside the San Gabriels, and additional protection for the watersheds in the range. She also said they were exploring the possibility of the Park Service-recommended National Recreation Area for some of the foothill areas and Rio Hondo / San Gabriel River into the Puente Hills, but clarified that the Monument itself could not expand there because Monuments can only be established on land already owned by the federal government.

The Southern California Program Associate for the National Forest Foundation Edward Belden was next to speak, and used his time to focus on some of the projects that were happening in both the new National Monument and the National Forest. The National Forest Foundation has begun pilot restoration programs in the East Fork of the San Gabriel River and Big Tujunga Canyon, repairing trails, installing and repairing picnic tables, and reforesting over 2300 acres of land burned in the Station Fire with native seedlings.

The Foundation is also responsible for establishing the San Gabriel Mountains Community Collaborative to help act as a communications route between the public and the Forest Service in general.

The last to speak on the panel was Tim Brick, Managing Director of the Arroyo Seco Foundation. As you might expect, his presentation was focused on critiquing the fact that the front range was excluded from the National Monument. He mentioned that the area excluded from the National Monument lined up fairly consistently with the Station Fire Burn Area and said that “so many areas integral to the San Gabriels’ history and culture were left out of the Monument.”

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Brick argued for the expansion of the Monument

Brick pulled up editorials from many local outlets criticizing the smaller-then-expected Monument boundaries and also chided the Forest Service for taking so long to repair the Gabrielino Trail and to remove the Brown Canyon Dam. “For the first time in history, you can’t walk the Arroyo Seco to Mount Wilson.”

Brick emphasized that these points weren’t made to nitpick the efforts, but to highlight the importance of increased protection and resources for the more heavily used front range. “It’s wrong to foster competition for vitally needed resources,” he concluded.

At this point, Steve Scauzillo returned to the podium to ask a few questions of the panel and moderate questions from the audience as well.

His first question, coming on the heels of Brick’s presentation, was “What can we do to expand the Monument?”

Faustinos was the first to chime in, saying there were only two possible ways to expand the monument – with another Presidential proclamation or through Congressional action. It was highly unlikely, she said, that an expansion proclamation would come from the Obama administration. The legislative road is a tougher route to travel but not a lost cause, she said, mentioning that there may be a way to tack on some expansion via the currently under-study Rim of the Valley project led by Congressman Adam Schiff. She said the goal was to introduce legislation this year, potentially working with both Schiff and Chu’s offices together.

Lovato said they were working very hard to make sure the area excluded from the Monument was not excluded from the additional resources. He said that $250,000 was set aside for the restoration of the Gabrielino Trail (and later in the evening, the President of the off-road bicyclist association CORBA told me they had actually completed trail work past the Brown Canyon Dam as well).

The next question was “What is the one thing on the top of your to-do list for improvements?”

Belden said he was most excited about the Cattle Canyon improvements in the East Fork that were already underway, including improvements for hikers, interpretation, and picnic areas.

Brick said he would be most interested in a comprehensive assessment of the health of the San Gabriel watersheds and dam management, focusing on the impacts of the current drought.

Faustinos said her top priority is better visitor interaction and mentioned that’s also the number one request from the public. “Most people want better guidance from the rangers and more chances for personal interface,” she said. Efforts like that form lasting impressions that help “visitors become stewards.”

The next question dealt with the Forest Service oversight of the Monument. Scauzillo said people consider the San Gabriels as LA’s Park. “Would we want to see Park Service Rangers here or is that out the window?”

Lovato said that the Forest Service is up to the task of overseeing the San Gabriels, but that they have been extensively reaching out to the Park Service for guidance. Their “Service First” policy, he said, lets them easily share expertise and research with the Park Service, and they’ve already approached the Park Service to help with improving the interpretive exhibits and features in the San Gabriels, something he acknowledged the Park Service’s expertise on. At every step of this process, he’s encouraging his Forest Service rangers to ask themselves, “What would the Park Service do?”

The public question and answer session was short and overwhelmingly civil. Unlike other meetings on this issue, it seems like most people are now focused on trying to figure out how they can be involved in the decision-making process to help make sure the Monument is as good as it can be.

One citizen asked about the prospects of expanding the Monument to include the northern section of the Angeles National Forest. Faustinos said they would be reaching out for advocates and volunteers, but encouraged everyone who wanted expansion to contact their Congressperson to let them know it was something they wanted.

Another man who I believe was also at the County Board of Supervisors meeting asked the same question he did there – how would the Monument affect water for Los Angeles County, especially during a drought? Belden commented that many of the restoration projects already in the works are in those watersheds, including removing invasive Arundo from the Big Tujunga Canyon. Arundo uses significantly more water than native vegetation, and he mentioned that removing 100 acres of the plant would save approximately 2000 acre-feet of water in the watershed.

A woman asked the question that had been on most people’s minds since the boundaries were announced – why did the Monument come into being with smaller boundaries than people were expecting?

Brick said he got a lot of “psuedo answers” on the issue, and said he didn’t think the process was a good one. “Maybe a mid-level bureaucrat did it,” he said, “but no one is willing to accept the responsibility for the (finalized) maps. No one will own up to it.” Scauzillo chimed in to say he had also investigated this question and said he’d “never gotten an answer. I don’t think they knew.”

At this point, Novato also said the Forest Service wasn’t aware of the decreased borders until the day of the signing, either.

The 1906 Antiquities Act, which was used to establish the Monument by Presidential decree, does state the President is to designate “the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected,” but it also gives tremendous leeway in determining that area. And, as several panelists and attendees mentioned, it does seem odd that the most heavily-used and fire-damaged areas of the range were excluded.

The last question was the only time the meeting became confrontational. A representative from the Kizh Nation accused the Forest Service of intentionally leaving them out of the planning process (they voiced a similar complaint at the August meeting). Lovato said that was because the scoping meetings hadn’t begun yet. He repeated that there would be ten public meetings and that all the information would be available both on the Forest Service web site and to anyone who signed into the meeting with their email address. He also said the Forest Service would be meeting with both federally recognized and non-recognized tribes (the Kizh are not federally recognized).

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Kizh members approach the podium

As Scauzillo tried to wrap up the evening, another Kizh stood up and approached him at the podium, demanding to know why his tribe hadn’t yet received federal recognition. When Scauzillo tried to tell him this was not the forum for that question, his daughter loudly yelled “Let’s sit down, dad – they don’t want to listen to Native Americans.” The comment was met with silence.

Amidst that oddly tense moment, the organizers thanked the panelists and invited people to come and ask them questions in person for a short time following the close of the event.

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