In San Gabriel Mountains, a Monument Designation is Only a Start

Much of Los Angeles’ remaining open space lies outside the city in the mountains above. It is visible from porches, schoolyards and freeways – and only minutes away – but for many the distance to the San Gabriel Mountains might as well be Alaska.

So when former President Barack Obama designated the San Gabriel Mountains as a national monument in 2014 he declared: “This is an issue of social justice. Because it’s not enough to have this awesome natural wonder within your sight -– you have to be able to access it.”

Access does not simply mean a road or path from which to enter and exit the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, community advocates say. Access begins with knowledge – knowing what is there – which is a matter of outreach, education and collaboration. Access is an issue of communication: English is one of many languages – including Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Armenian and Mandarin – overheard on riverbanks and trailheads. Signage and rangers need to be able to communicate with the visitors who flock to the San Gabriels to escape the region’s concrete corridors. Access includes recognizing that Los Angeles’s diversity is economic as well as cultural; there are many people with no car, who rely on public transportation and otherwise have no way to enter the San Gabriels.

Ensuring access requires a plan for management and an official plan is less than one year from completion. Many business leaders, local governments, water agencies, environmentalists, mountain bikers and civil rights advocates are concerned that the management plan, so far, lacks the details and specifics to guide the twin goals of protecting the land and water while encouraging more visitors, especially those who never have smelled the coastal scrub, watched the glide of a hawk, or cooled by the water of the San Gabriel River.

The U.S. Forest Service is tasked with drafting a plan, with the final version due this fall. The agency also must address an existential crisis facing all federal land agencies – the necessity of engaging urban, communities of color.

Released in August 2016, the nearly 200-page draft plan incorporates more than 1,500 comments and suggestions from more than 900 groups and individuals. Five open houses were held across two counties to gather public comment. In addition, the Forest Service consulted with regional tribes as well as the San Gabriel Mountains Community Collaborative, a group of 45 people tasked with representing the interest and communities of the national monument.

The plan is divided into four themes: transportation and access, sustainable recreation and use, social issues and environmental justice, and Wildlife, Sensitive Species, Threatened and Endangered Species. Though the Forest Service is considered progressive for a federal land agency, it is unclear how it will achieve its stated vision with no clear next steps. For example, the management plan cites the importance of recognizing recreation equity, described as the ratio of nearby and potential visitors of color to actual visitors of color. However, there is no clear method to address recreation equity and attract more visitors of color. The plan acknowledges environmental justice and how the lack of safe, open spaces, viable public transportation and limited outreach impacts who – and who does not – visit. Yet there is no solution to address the national monument’s public transit deficit.

The lack of specifics is part of this stage of the process, according to forest service officials. Justin Seastrand, a Forest Service supervisor, oversaw the draft. The next stage is incorporating community proposals, Seastrand says, and everyone must trust the process.

“It’s not a question of trusting the forest service or the process or anyone else,” explains civil rights attorney Robert Garcia of The City Project. “It is a question of having in place a planning process, standards and criteria, data and specific outcomes to be achieved, and, finally, an implementation plan to make that happen.”

Garcia submitted a letter suggesting a five-point planning framework, including the use of empirical research, anecdotal evidence, GIS mapping as well as standards that measure progress and hold officials accountable. Such planning would analyze the benefits and burdens of people of color and low-income people. Garcia also suggests a review of best practices by the National Park Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who have studied the San Gabriels, the nearby Santa Monica Mountains and plans to re-green the Los Angeles River.

Additional groups such as the San Gabriel Mountains Forever coalition have submitted detailed suggestions for the management plan, including deadlines with accountability measures. The community collaborative submitted 20 pages of edits to the management plan itself, which were also sent to the region’s congressional representatives. The edits include a vision statement highlighting opportunities for education, collaboration, recreation and fostering the next generation of public land stewards. These include partnering with school districts, universities and research organizations to teach local students and the general public about the mountains and its recreation opportunities; directing low-skill level work to youth employment agencies; creating a network of volunteer guides from local community groups; a strategy to leverage funding from private businesses and corporations, not-for profit foundations and public agencies; ensuring guides and rangers are culturally competent by providing training from multilingual and multicultural educators.

Both the community and the Forest Service envision social media to engage and educate visitors, specifically young people. However, the Forest Service plan listed social media engagement as a “desired condition.” As a desired condition, there is no requirement to actually achieve the goal or a plan for implementation. The community collaborative proposed following the desired condition of social media engagement with a goal of creating a multilingual website within two years as well as the development and implementation within three years of a plan to engage youth.

The latest period of public comment is closed and, with Republicans taking control of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, it is a matter of waiting – waiting to see what might come from Congress as well as President Donald J. Trump’s appointees.

In the meantime, a new project is underway on the San Gabriel River, which could create a sustainable model for recreation, education and outreach funded by state bonds. If successful, it could become a model for the national monument.