San Gabriel Valley Tribune

San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Article Published: Monday, September 15, 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


Masses and Messes
Stampede of visitors takes toll

By Lisa Faught

ANGELES NATIONAL FOREST -- John Robinson has been hiking the San Gabriel Mountains for 64 years. In his youth, he could hike the far reaches of the Angeles National Forest and never see another soul.

But in the late 1970s, the region saw the start of what Robinson calls the "Second Great Hiking Era," which even today shows no sign of slowing. "It's an explosion of hikers," said Robinson, author of the widely read "Trails of the Angeles: 100 Hikes in the San Gabriels."

"There's too darn many people, but you can understand why. The San Gabriels are an urban mountain range. It's the back yard of L.A."

Today, our forest is under siege. And it's the hub of humanity on its fringes that's leading the way.

Mother Nature with her fires and floods plays a role, but the massive pressure of a nearby urban society is impacting the health of the forest, said Ron Pugh , team leader of the forest plan revision for the U.S. Forest Service.

"The forests are a reservoir of open space in Southern California. As development continues, it puts more pressure on the forest," Pugh said. "The sheer number of people we're dealing with in Southern California is a huge issue ... it's kind of staggering."

Day Users
DAY USERS cool off in the East Fork of the San Gabriel River in the Angeles National Forest. Thousands of people head into the forest every weekend, often resulting in trash accumulation and environmental degradation. (Staff photo by Bernardo Alps)
An Urban Playground: Millions Recreate

Of the 18 national forests in California, the Angeles ranks as one of the most frequented. In 1992, the Forest Service recognized it as serving the largest urban population in the United States.

Over the years, forest officials say the number of visitors has increased dramatically, but nobody quite knows by how much.

The Forest Service once calculated that the forest saw more than 30 million visitors annually. But starting in 2000, it switched to a different method of counting, statistical sampling rather than estimating. The number of visitors is now somewhere in the 3.5 million range.

Some 9.5 million people live in Los Angeles county -- all within an hour's drive of the Angeles National Forest. Of those 9.5 million, 1.7 million live in the San Gabriel Valley, in the shadow of the mountains. Unlike most national forests, there is no buffer between the forest and the concrete jungle.

Most of the San Gabriel Valley is developed, with housing in the foothill cities pushing against the borders of the forest. In some cases, housing even crops up inside the borders on islands of private land, such as the La Vina development in Altadena. On the north side of the forest, the entire city of Wrightwood lies within forest boundaries.

Linking the housing to the forest are dozens of trails, stretching from foothill neighborhoods into the mountains.

Gabrielino Trail near the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, commonly known as JPL, in La Canada Flintridge, eventually heads up to Switzer Falls off the Angeles Crest Highway in the forest. Chaney Trail in Altadena links up with El Prieto Trail to Sunset Ridge. Mount Wilson Trail in Sierra Madre runs up to the peak and snakes past Henninger Flats.

That opens the front country of the forest to plenty of foot traffic.

"You can be there in five minutes. You don't need to drive, you can just walk into the forest," said Raina Fulton , head of recreation for the U.S. Forest Service. "It's not a destination forest, it's a day-use forest."

Forest Fun: Runs The Gamut

The Angeles National Forest is known for its recreation. Beyond hiking is a dizzying array of recreational opportunities, never mind the some 500 miles of trails and 100 campgrounds and picnic sites.

There are the nature lovers. Fishermen scouting out secret spots to hook trout from Pyramid Lake to San Dimas Reservoir. Equestrians wandering the dusty trails criss-crossing the forest. Backpackers hiking into the back country. Birders scanning for rare plumes.

There are the rough and tumble crowds. Off-roaders driving their big trucks through the mud in San Gabriel Canyon, Little Rock Recreation Area and Rowher Flats. Marksmen practicing target shooting at Burro Canyon Shooting Park in the San Gabriel Canyon. Motorcycle riders zooming along the twists and turns of Angeles Crest Highway to Newcomb's Ranch, a motorcycle mecca.

There are the adrenalin junkies. Skiers and snowboarders plying the slopes at Mount Waterman, Kratka Ridge, Ski Sunrise and Mount Baldy. Mountain bikers zinging along fire roads. Rock climbers scrambling up sheer rock faces at Williamson Rock. Bungee jumpers hopping off the Bridge to Nowhere.

Scofflaws Commit: Crimes Against Nature

Then there are the scofflaws. Farmers cultivating vast plantations of marijuana. Hunters poaching wild animals. Landscapers collecting free flora. People defecating on the river banks.

It's the people who skirt the rules who do the most harm, said Matt Mathes, who handles media relations for the Pacific Southwest Region of the Forest Service.

"Most people are responsible," Mathes said. "But when you're talking about millions of people, even if it's only a small percentage of irresponsible people, it's going to have a lot of impact."

Density Degrades: Select Spots

For the most part, the crowds are concentrated in a few select places. The Angeles National Forest is one of the smaller forests in the nation, at 690,000 acres stretching from roughly the San Bernardino County line on the east to the Ventura County line on the west. The terrain is rocky and steep and roads are relatively few, making only a handful of places in the forest hospitable.

In fact, just 4 percent of the forest is easily accessible, Fulton said.

YOUNG PEOPlE cool off in the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. An estimated 3.5 million people visit the forest annually. (Staff photo by Bernardo Alps)
So the crowds go where the steep mountains give way to gentle river corridors. The creeks and rivers are far easier to negotiate than the rugged and at times treacherous slopes of the mountains.

People seek waterfalls, creeks, reservoirs, rivers -- places such as Big Tujunga Canyon, San Gabriel Canyon, Little Rock Recreation Area, San Antonio Falls, Sturtevant Falls.

But the riparian corridors, where the rivers flow, are also the home of several endangered species and the source of a good percentage of the county's drinking water supply.

The sheer number of people recreating in the forest keeps the Forest Service spread thin. Just the basics of collecting loose trash, sandblasting graffiti off rocks and cleaning bathrooms eats up most of the staff time, Fulton said.

"They're shooting at it, tearing it down, sawing at it, burning it," Fulton said. "On Monday, it's like cleaning up a stadium."

-- Lisa Faught can be reached at (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4496, or by e-mail at

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