San Gabriel Valley Tribune: Biden official hears from packed audience on expanding San Gabriel Mountains monument
By Steve Scauzillo
Inside a packed meeting hall in Azusa, a top Biden Administration official heard from dozens of speakers the night of Tuesday, Nov. 7, mostly in support of expanding the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument with additional protections of scenic rivers and sensitive mountain habitat.
More than 250 people attended the public hearing at the invitation of the president, who sent Homer Wilkes, under secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for natural resources and environment, to listen, review transcripts of the meeting and report back to help President Joe Biden decide if he should expand the monument’s size by a third.
“This monument is being worked through the legislative process and I see there is a lot of support for it,” said Wilkes, in an interview during a break in the 2 1/2-hour meeting. “My job is to come out here and listen to what concerns people have.”
Twin bills from Rep. Judy Chu, (D-Pasadena) and Sen. Alex Padilla, (D-Calif.) introduced in May propose adding 109,167 acres of Angeles National Forest land to the 346,179-acre San Gabriel Mountains National Monument with the hope that it will bring the monument more funding and resources. The monument includes 342,177 acres of the Angeles National Forest and 4,002 acres of the neighboring San Bernardino National Forest.
The bills also would designate more than 30,000 acres of protected wilderness and add 45.5 miles to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
Chu and Padilla have asked Biden to use his powers under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to add federal forest land already within the 700,000-acre Angeles National Forest to the monument, bypassing Congress and the legislative process. The original monument started with legislation 10 years ago, but was created by President Barack Obama with a stroke of the pen in October 2014 during his visit to the Angeles National Forest.
Wilkes said he will confer first with his boss, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Vilsack will then meet with Biden. “On behalf of Secretary Vilsack and President Biden, I’ll be able to share the concerns actually raised out here,” Wilkes said.
The addition would take in southwestern sections of the Angeles National Forest, including areas north of Sylmar and east of the Newhall Pass. It would include the Arroyo Seco, a historic tributary of the Los Angeles River running through Pasadena, as well as the Tujunga Wash.
A key addition is Chantry Flat, a popular hiking and picnic spot north of Arcadia and Sierra Madre that has attracted thousands of visitors on weekends but has been closed for several years due to damage from rainstorms and lack of resources from the U.S. Forest Service to make repairs.
Also included in the proposed expansion is the site of Thaddeus Lowe’s funicular, the Mount Lowe Railway, which from 1893 to 1938 took people on a roller-coaster of a ride high into the mountains above Pasadena; as well as historic trails that were created as part of the Great Hiking Era and sites containing ancient Native American relics.
The overwhelming majority of the public who spoke Tuesday favored expansion, preservation of forest lands and better community access. Many wanted to see a boomerang effect from a second monument land designation that could lead to more resources for trash pickup, outreach, transportation, interpretive programs and enforcement.
“I hope this expansion also comes with more resources, a lot more programing and an opportunity for more people to engage,” said Yvette Lopez-Ledesma, a member of The Wilderness Society who leads hiking groups into the Angeles National Forest.
Morgan Goodwin, senior director of the Sierra Club Angeles Chapter, said that on recent hikes he’s witnessed deterioration both in the monument and the Angeles National Forest, including poor signage and crumbling infrastructure. “We hope an expansion will lead directly to a better investment by the federal government,” he testified.
Monterey Park City Council member Thomas Wong was part of a roundtable discussion of invited city leaders and other stakeholders headed up by Wilkes. Wilkes held a private small group meeting on Saturday, Nov. 4 and three more on Tuesday, Wilkes said.
“Regarding the designation of a national monument — all that has been about bringing more resources to the mountains,” said Wong in an interview. Wong said the lack of Forest Service resources to properly manage the monument came up in the roundtable discussion.
While a monument designation doesn’t come with a budgetary line item, it adds prestige that can leverage dollars, supporters say.
Donations of about $3 million flowed to the National Forest Foundation for use in the monument shortly after its designation in 2014. A year later, Coca-Cola made a $900,000 donation. Recently, the Forest Service used private funds to improve the Castaic Lake campgrounds. And Chu has put in seed money of about $995,000 to start a public transit shuttle service into key monument recreation sites.
Nick Rosal, in a public comment, said there were too many unanswered questions about the expansion. “Is this a land grab? It is not clear. It is not specific. We have to look at the financial issues.”
Some said requiring more work to develop a management plan for the addition, and enforcing rules on a larger monument, amounted to an unfunded mandate.
Rob Pettersen, a volunteer who helps repair trails, said the expansion is putting the cart before the horse. “I feel a major influx of financial support for the Angeles is far more important,” he said.
Due to understaffing, the Forest Service, which is under the USDA, often uses nonprofit groups to supply volunteers to make trail repairs, pick up trash and clean restrooms. Even making major repairs of washed-out bridges and trails has become difficult, the Forest Service told this newspaper in July.
But Machiko Yasuda, who lives near a trailhead, said amenities are in short supply, including bathrooms and rangers.
“The Forest Service cannot continue to rely on volunteers to maintain trails that get trashed,” she commented. “We want to see full-time jobs for recreation and interpretation.” She’d also like to see the model used by the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, which is managed by the U.S. Park Service, to replace the Forest Service.
While managerial changes are not in the legislation and would not be part of a presidential declaration for expanding the monument land, Wilkes said he’s relying on the community to rally for funding if the monument addition is approved.
“This is an opportunity to have other public-private partnership engagements. The federal government can’t do everything,” he said.
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