The White House is sending a top-level cabinet member who oversees the U.S. Forest Service to the San Gabriel Valley next week to hear from the public as to whether President Joe Biden should expand the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.
Homer Wilkes, under secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for natural resources and environment, listen to a discussion about adding historic sites from the Great Hiking Era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, plus areas that contain ancient tribal relics. Both were left out of the monument declared by President Barack Obama on Oct. 10, 2014.
The public is invited to hear from Wilkes and Jennifer Eberlien, regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region, as well as Roman Torres, supervisor of the 700,000-square-mile Angeles National Forest which includes the monument.
All three are making a rare public appearance in Southern California at the meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 7 at the California Army National Guard Building in Azusa.
“It is a chance for the community to speak directly to the Biden Administration,” said Daniel Rossman, California deputy director of The Wilderness Society and a Pasadena resident. “The fact that they are coming is a testament to growing community support that has been building since 2014.”
Biden nominated Wilkes as under secretary in 2021 and he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Feb. 8, 2022. The veteran administrator with the USDA has a history of working on conservation and restoration of public lands. In 2010 Wilkes oversaw cleanup of the Gulf of Mexico after the vast BP oil spill, caused when the oil drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank.
As under secretary, Wilkes has been meeting with senators from New Jersey, Illinois and recently, Nevada, and providing grant money for forest projects including $4 million for post-wildfire restoration at the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada.
Support for expanding the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument comes from 55 elected officials, including resolutions of support passed by the cities of Alhambra, Monterey Park, Santa Clarita, South Pasadena and Glendale. Support also comes from the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, the Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians-Kizh Nation, and the Gabrieleño-Tongva tribe.
Last month, Gov. Gavin Newson wrote to President Biden requesting that he use his powers to expand the national monument, the U.S. Forest Service reported.
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 — an increase of about one-third. The monument includes 342,177 acres of the Angeles National Forest and 4,002 acres of neighboring San Bernardino National Forest.
The bills would also designate more than 30,000 acres of protected wilderness and add 45.5 miles to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
Both legislators wrote letters asking Biden to bypass Congressional approval and add to the monument, using the parameters in their bills. The president could do so by signing a declaration using the Antiquities Act of 1906. The president has the authority to preserve natural and historic places via that 1906 law, first used by Teddy Roosevelt to preserve open space in perpetuity.
If Biden did so, he would prevent new roads or mining on the protected land, preserving it for habitat and recreation.
The president wants to make sure the community is behind the idea, said Chu on Wednesday.
“This is part of the process to extend a national monument,” Chu said. “I think it is a very good sign. It shows we are making progress on this issue.”
Just before Obama came to the San Gabriel Valley to sign the proclamation nine years ago, some of the most historic and most-used trails in the southwestern part of the Angeles National Forest were removed from the monument map — to the dismay of Chu, environmental groups and local cities.
The current expansion would add southwestern sections of the Angeles National Forest to the monument, 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 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 type ride high into the mountains above Pasadena; as well as historic trails that were created as part of the Great Hiking Era.
The idea of setting aside part of the San Gabriel Mountains as a national monument began as a bill in 2003 by then-Rep. Hilda Solis, now a Los Angeles County supervisor, who served as secretary of labor under Obama. A study by the U.S. National Park Service found the area had a unique ecology that included endangered species such as the Santa Ana sucker fish and the mountain yellow-legged frog, as well as historic sites such as the Mt. Wilson Observatory where Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe was expanding.
When Solis left office the effort was transferred to Chu. The National Park Service held hearings in 2012 and 2013 and Chu met with numerous groups including cities and water agencies to gain support, which resulted in creation of the monument.
Belén Bernal, executive director of Nature For All, says the process seems to be repeating itself.
“It is my understanding similar meetings took place with the first designation of the national monument several years ago,” said Bernal in an interview on Wednesday, Nov. 1. “The goal is to officially take public comments. Then that will be shared with the (Biden) administration.”
A monument designation is not attached to a budgetary line item but it adds prestige and that can leverage dollars from public and private sources, Rossman said.
After the Obama designation, donations of about $3 million flowed to the National Forest Foundation. A year later, Coca-Cola made a $900,000 donation. Recently, the U.S. Forest Service has used private funds to improve the Castaic Lake campgrounds. Chu has put in seed money of about $995,000 to start a public transit shuttle service into key monument recreation sites.
“Articulating this as a special place in the past has allowed us to leverage private funding,” Rossman said. “This would allow us to prioritize recreation needs in a higher way.”
The USDA Listening Session focused on efforts to expand the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument takes place from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 7 at the California Army National Guard Building, 1351 W. Sierra Madre Ave., Azusa, CA 91702. Doors open at 4:30 p.m.