The natural beauty of Southern California has been a selling point as long as Los Angeles has considered itself a city worth moving to – many of the early tourist pamphlets and booster-written articles lured people to the Southland with the promise of pristine coastlines, mountain wilderness resorts, and frost-free gardens perfect for growing whatever you wanted. As the city unfurled across the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys, some with foresight were able to set aside truly impressive outdoor resources for the public – but in general, Angelenos were more concerned with private backyards than public parks and playgrounds.
The result is that L.A. consistently lands in the bottom third of the Trust for Public Land’s annual ParkScore index – a system that ranks the nation’s hundred largest cities based on the quality of their park systems (in 2018, we’re at #66, just behind … Bakersfield). Although we have outstanding resources like the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains and Griffith Park, access to those places remains a constant barrier for many – and too often, those barriers are being strengthened by nearby homeowners.
The L.A. Times ran a story recently about a Hidden Valley resident who filed a lawsuit alleging a neighboring landowner left a deer carcass in the middle of a trail in the Santa Monica Mountains and surrounded it with cameras – perhaps to lure mountain lions into the region to spook hikers and equestrians. Whether or not those allegations are true, they are sadly a not-very-shocking escalation of other tactics used to keep public parks as private enclaves.
In Hollywoodland, homeowners have put up barriers on public streets, posted fake ‘official’ closure signs, and allegedly hired security guards to discourage people from accessing western Griffith Park on public streets and trails after homeowners and businesses in Beachwood Canyon agitated and sued to close an access gate there. In Malibu, seaside homeowners claimed private ownership of entire beaches. In Whittier, residents complained when their permit parking allowed even moderately accessible access to Turnbull Canyon, and now most hikers now have to walk 1.5 miles –half on a busy, winding canyon road with no sidewalks – before they even get to the trailhead. But at least they have it better than hikers in Rancho Palos Verdes, where the City Council altered nearby parking restrictions to make it much more difficult to visit Del Cerro Park … unless you happen to live nearby and have a residential parking permit, of course.
The problem of access to parks is not a new one for Los Angeles – more than a hundred years ago, Colonel Griffith J. Griffith expressed his frustrations with the city’s treatment of his donated parkland in the book “Parks, Boulevards, and Playgrounds.” Griffith was a complicated guy with many criticizable qualities, but he foresaw the importance of cities providing not just individual parks but park systems and access to those systems for everyone, regardless of their personal wealth. Thirteen years after his donation of the Park – when there were only about 100,000 Angelenos – Griffith was upset that although the city now had four times as many residents, “not one single step has been taken to secure that accessibility without which the park cannot be considered as open equally to both rich and poor.” Griffith wanted low-cost trains and busses to bring people to the park, but he and his son had to buy (and, in the case of his son, drive) the busses themselves because the city wouldn’t do it.
Recent transit-to-trails programs here are still met with stiff resistance – the newly opened Pasadena Line 88 from the Metro Gold Line to the popular Echo Mountain trailhead in the San Gabriel Mountains ran about 5 months of its pilot program before neighbors on Loma Alta Drive complained about squeaky brakes. Their County Supervisor promptly promised to eliminate that section of the route. How long before those same residents complain about the cars parked on the street now that there’s no transit option and build their own wall of residential parking permits?
There are many agencies and individuals working to improve access to our parklands – including some residents in these contentious neighborhoods – but there is one group that could stand to be much more of a squeaky brake pad in this conversation: park users. Many of us who enjoy the outdoors in Southern California travel long distances to get to our favorite spots, and perhaps don’t feel we have the right to communicate with the local governments and agencies who maintain those lands, but the truth is whether you hike, bike, surf, ride horseback, fish, hunt, picnic, or walk through any of these parks, you are just as much of a constituent as someone who happens to own a piece of land nearby. Far too often, mayors, councilpersons, and supervisors only hear one side of this conversation – and in order for our city to grow and still provide public access to public lands, we not only need to set good examples on the trail, we also need to get involved to help find compromises that work for everyone, not just homeowners.
USA.gov has a tool that will help you find your elected officials – including state and local officials – quickly and easily. In addition, the Outdoor Industry Association has built a web tool that will show you your Congressional representatives as well as relevant votes on outdoor issues.