San Gabriel Valley Tribune

San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Article Published: Sunday, September 14, 2003


- Under Siege
- Cartels growing pot in forest
- Forest at crossoads over public use
- Lake not so crystal
- Fire threat still high, officials say
- Facing Extinction
- Masses and Messes
- A foul problem: garbage
- Groups spread blame for forest damage
- Forest dwellers have created their share of problems
- 'Static' budget hinders forest
- Bad roads hinder vistor, fire vehicle access
- Adventure Pass raises funds, eyebrows
- Saving the forest a tall task

      Welcome to "Forest in Peril," a four-part series focusing on the degradation of the Angels National Forest.
      The forest -- arguably the Southland's most precious natural resource -- faces overwhelming pressure from Mother Nature and man. Our urban playground needs serious attention, but money and manpower are scarce.
      U.S Forest Service officials and conservationists are scrambling to protect the 690,000-acre region, but is it too little, too late?

Under Siege
Too much pressure steadily degrades Valley's Playground

By Diana L. Roemer, Staff Writer

ANGELES NATIONAL FOREST -- Just a century ago, foresters waxed poetic about the undefiled beauty of the Angeles National Forest. It was something: the idyllic peaks of Mount Wilson and Mount Baden-Powell, a labyrinth of healthy pine trees, a clean river.

Now, the San Gabriel Valley's back yard is under siege from the 3.5 million people who visit it every year.

In some spots, you can't see the forest for the trash. "It's a constant cleanup effort," said Gail Wright, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman.

Among the more notable trouble spots:

No matter what kind of harm you're talking about, human beings seem to have a hand in it, and money constraints, resulting in a dearth of manpower and resources, worsen things.

Charred Trees
CHARRED TREES from last year's Curve Fire dot the landscape above Crystal Lake in the Angeles National Forest. Fires burned more than 60,000 acres in the forest.(Staff photo by BERNARDO ALPS)
Fires ravage hills

Fires started by visitors and fueled by drought have charred acres of the forest, leaving moonscapes in areas such as the Experimental Forest. Last year, the record-setting Curve and Williams fires, started by candles and a barbecue, torched 60,000 acres - about 10 percent of the forest - and cost $1 million per day to fight, said Forest Supervisor Jody Cook.

Burned cabins remain sprinkled throughout the forest. In San Dimas Canyon, businesses, including a motorcycle repair shop and a knife-making business, were leveled. Worse, the fires set the stage - weaker after-growth that dies in the summer - for more massive infernos that could ignite this fall, forest officials say.

"When you have extreme conditions ... you're going to have what we had last year," Cook said.

Floods erode hillsides and carry debris to the waterways.

In what Cook calls a precedent-setting year, floods in 2002 washed out remains of San Dimas Canyon cabins into the San Dimas Creek river forks. A year later, repairs and cleanup - mangled cars are still stuck nose-down in the dirt - are moving slowly. "It's a mess up there," Cook said.

A tale of trash

But the biggest problem the forest faces, by far, is wear-and-tear and contamination at the hands of people. Millions of visitors are trashing the forest. They leave plastic bottles, mattresses and dirty diapers, tag trees and rocks with graffiti, and cause ground erosion.

On Sundays, the San Gabriel River is littered with flotsam. "It's like the Rose Parade after everyone leaves," said Jerry Sirski , a recreation officer for the San Gabriel River Ranger District.

U.S. FOREST SERVICE workers pick up trash along the East Fork Road in the Angeles National Forest.(Staff photo by BERNARDO ALPS)
All told, Forest Service workers pick up between 150 and 175 tons of trash per year in San Gabriel Canyon alone, a popular spot by the river. Forest workers scramble to pick up trash. "We have a stadium mentality," Wright said.

Then there are the recreationists - hikers, bikers, off-roaders and hunters. The impacts trickle down. Forest species become endangered. Sixteen species of plants, birds and fish are either endangered or threatened.

One small-scale example: the endangered unarmored threespined stickleback fish. Sound inconsequential? On a practical level, consider: the stickleback eats worms. If the stickleback disappears, that means more worms feeding on foliage.

Photographer Roy Murphy spent 30 years photographing the Angeles National Forest, and produced a book titled Angeles National Forest. "They've got a struggle ... but there are enough people that are really concerned about preserving it," Murphy said.

Money woes strain resources

Money is a continuing problem. Federal funding, $28.95 million last year, has not kept up with the population boom. About 600,000 people moved to Los Angeles County from 1990 to 2000.

Less money means less manpower and resources. The result: crumbling infrastructure, trash-ridden grounds, polluted water, ailing growth.

Money constraints have hampered construction of a road to connect state Highway 39 and Angeles Crest (2) Highway, which would form a loop through the forest, with access to the East San Gabriel Valley from the 39 and the West San Gabriel Valley from the 2.

As recently as last year, Caltrans was poised to reconnect the highways. But the state budget crunch came, with news of a $38.2 billion deficit, said Caltrans spokesman Ron Kosinski. "When a project had to go, it was that road," Kosinski said.

They keep coming

The forest's 34 caretakers are vastly outnumbered by visitors. For instance, busy weekends find an average of 5,000 people frolicking in a quarter-mile stretch of the San Gabriel River.

The forest is impacted by more than just the people who visit. Thousands make their homes in the foothills abutting the forest. Projections show the population in Los Angeles County going from 9.5 million people to more than 22 million by 2025.

Cook says the Angeles, a small forest compared to other national forests, is one of the busiest in the nation.

To accommodate the droves, developers are building wherever they can, even toward the forest's borders, Cook said. A legion of neighborhoods on the forest's north side -- the Palmdale and Highway 14 vicinities -- is growing, Cook said. "The back side is a whole new ballgame. We're concerned," she said.

What: The Angeles Nation Forest
Where: It stretches from roughly the Ventura County line on the west to the San Bernardino County line on the east, and from Lancaster on the north to the Valley's foothills on the south.
Size: About 690,000 acres
Features: Major peaks are Mount Baldy, Mount Wilson and Mount Baden-Powell. The San Gabriel River starts at San Gabriel Canyon and runs through the Valley and to the Pacific Ocean. The forest is home to the California black bear, Nelson bighorn sheep and the yellow-legged frog.
Budget: It varies, but the 2002 budget was $28.95 million
Staff: About 34 workers
History: The forest was established as federally protected land in 1892.
Beauty abounds

But it's not all bad news. The good news, environmentalists say, is that 90 to 95 percent of the forest is not easily accessible to the public.

And it's pristine: groves of yellow ponderosa at Big Cienega Springs; chaparral yucca jutting from the snow in the winters at Upper Tujunga; Lewis Falls cascading into a gorge; lupine, wild mustard and lipstick-red snow plants painting the landscape; great-horned owls, morning doves and white-breasted nuthatches in the trees.

Cook wants buffer zones between urban development and the forest. And more volunteers. "If there ever was a national forest in the country that could be managed basically as an adopted forest, it's this one."

Conservationist groups such as the Sierra Club, Free Our Forests and Glendora Mountain Conservancy are doing all they can.

Feds take aim

And, though its proposed solutions have been lambasted by environmentalists, the federal government has taken notice of the problems in forests.In 2002, a 10-year plan for reducing wildfire risks was adopted, followed by another plan called the "Healthy Forests Initiative."

President Bush has said the federal government needs to do more to eliminate the cause of wildfires, meaning dry brush, which he believes can be thinned by controlled fires and cutting. Last year, 7.2 million acres of forest burned nationwide. Critics say Bush could care less about the environment; that he wants to throw a bone to the timber industry.

Bush also has called for privatizing most of the U.S. Forest's work force, setting union officials who could lose jobs to the private sector on edge.

"They're looking at ... just about anybody that does anything in the forest service," said Dan Duefrene, president of the union that covers all of California's forests.

The union is pressuring Congress to persuade Bush that his plan won't work. Duefrene said Bush's plans will destroy the forest, stripping it of its wildlife biologists, hydrologists, firefighters, fisheries experts, contract administrators, recreational technicians and trail crews, and replace them with private contractors who don't care about the land.

But if the forest is going to live up to the poetic descriptions of centuries past, and resist privatization, which some say would help it, U.S. Forest officials and environmentalists are going to have to turn things around.

"We want to keep the forest looking like a forest, so that future generations can enjoy what past generations have," Tim Allyn, the Sierra Club's Southern California wilderness organizer, has emphasized.

Diana L. Roemer can be reached at (626) 962-8811, Ext. 2105, or by e- mail at

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