Obama declares new national monument in the mountains above Los Angeles

Trails, campgrounds and wildlands will qualify for federal funding for improvements.


Obama San Gabriel Monument Signing
President Obama among the mountains and smog. Photo courtesy of The City Project.
During my first winter in Los Angeles, the wet, wet year of 1991-1992, I set out on my daily commute east on Interstate 10 and beheld a vision I'd never expected: High, sparkling, snow-capped peaks towering over the city skyline. It’s not that I didn’t know these mountains, the San Gabriel Range, were there; I had read my John McPhee, knew his 1988 New Yorker essay, “Los Angeles Against the Mountains,” almost by heart. I just never expected to see those mountains framing the city in dawn-colored snow. The sight made me gasp, and I was seized with a compulsion to get up into them.

This past Friday, President Obama, using his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act, came to the San Gabriel foothills to declare 346,000 acres within the San Gabriel Mountains a national monument. The announcement is not without controversy: Officials in some jurisdictions, such as San Bernardino County, demanded their segment of the mountain range excluded; residents of some mountain communities feared the monument would restrict their access to roads and resorts. They showed up at the president’s signing in San Dimas, claiming he’d overstepped his authority.

Most of metropolitan Los Angeles, however, sides with the monument. A recent poll showed 80 percent of residents backing the plan; among Latinos, approval was eight points higher. For all the lack of diversity in U.S. National Parks, the San Gabriels have long been the place where Latino families from park-poor foothill communities bring their children to camp, hike and toboggan in the winter snow. It’s also where Southern California goes to ski and snowboard: Mount Baldy, which rises above 10,000 feet just 45 minutes from downtown Los Angeles, features an impressive halfpipe.

And while the monument has been carefully drawn to skirt ski resorts and residential developments, hundreds of miles of hiking trails, campgrounds and wildlands will qualify for federal funding for improvements, as will the San Gabriel River, which drains out of a watershed that provides more than a third of the region’s fresh water.

It’s been nearly a quarter of a century since I first saw my new city half-ringed by the glittering San Gabriel range. I have walked to the top of most of its peaks: Strawberry, Telegraph and Mount Baden-Powell; Mount Wilson with its famous observatory and forest of antennae; Mount Lukens (the highest point in Los Angeles) and Throop on the Pacific Crest Trail. I have perched myself on rocky slopes to count bighorn sheep for the Forest Service; I have waited out blizzards in a collapsing tent and woken to an enchanted world of virgin snow. All within an hour of a city hardly anyone thinks of as teeming with wild nature.

And I know now why no one told me before about the snowy view from the freeway: The winter after I arrived, Southern California emerged from an epic five-year dry spell that had depleted the state’s reservoirs and turned the Central Valley to dust. No rain in the lowlands means no snow in the mountains, and during those years the San Gabriel River had nearly run dry. It was a drought that was soon forgotten when, by 1993, the reservoirs were full again and fire departments spent several winter storms rescuing people who’d been swept away in flood-control channels. Southern Californians have a way of denying the preeminence of hydrological cycles, geology, wildlife and weather that defines our lives whether we respect them or not. Perhaps with a monument in our backyards, we’ll pay better attention.

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor to High Country News. She is based in Southern California and tweets @judlew. Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Mount Lukens is the highest point in Los Angeles County, when in fact it is only the highest within the city of Los Angeles.

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