After years of fighting a losing battle with the urban problems of violent crime, theft, drug abuse and drunk driving that accompany the 40,000 people who crowd San Gabriel Canyon on busy weekends, law enforcement officials say they are regaining control of the area.
"A lot of the bad element has left the canyon, and I think we've taken it back for families to use," said Capt. Tom Vetter, commander of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's San Dimas substation. "We are addressing the problems we have up there, and I think we're doing a good job."
Although the U.S. Forest Service, the Sheriff's Department and the California Highway Patrol began coordinating their enforcement efforts in San Gabriel Canyon three years ago, the payoff in lower crime rates and improved safety has come primarily in the last year.
Crime on the Wane
According to Sheriff's Department statistics, there were 15 incidents of violent crime between July 1, 1985, and March 30, 1986. For the 12 previous months, there were 22 such incidents.
Such crimes as burglaries and thefts have been decreasing at a greater rate, the Sheriff's Department said. There were 57 such crimes from July, 1985, through March, 1986; there had been 126 such incidents in the previous 12 months.
"We've made great strides in controlling the area," said William Woodland, Forest Service recreation officer. "We have not been able to increase our patrols significantly, but we have changed their operating hours to spread them out more effectively.
"We've gotten a lot of positive feedback from the users. That's the best sign that we're being successful."
'No Law Up There'
Forest Service personnel--trained primarily in land management, not law enforcement--have had to contend with mounting crime problems in San Gabriel Canyon since the early 1970s.
With no officers regularly patrolling the area, the easily accessible canyon became a magnet for illegal activities, said Roger Richcreek, crime prevention and enforcement coordinator for Angeles National Forest.
"People would say, 'We're going up to the canyon because there's no law up there, no one will hassle us,' " Richcreek said.
That changed in 1983 when problems at the canyon's Crystal Lake campground prompted the Forest Service to arm some of its rangers and coordinate law enforcement with the Sheriff's Department and the CHP under the Crystal Lake Alternative Management Plan, referred to by officers as CLAMP.
'Tired of Feeling Threatened'
"It was the first time in the United States that we routinely armed Forest Service rangers," Richcreek said, adding that complaints from visitors justified the move.
"People were tired of feeling threatened and having to get up in the middle of the night and leave (the campground) because of the loud music and the rocks and bottles being thrown," Richcreek said.
The key to reduced crime since then, Richcreek said, has been the higher profile taken by the various agencies that patrol the canyon.
The Forest Service has increased the presence of its armed patrol officers, particularly in the canyon's off-road-vehicle area. The Sheriff's Department has stepped up patrols on California 39--the canyon's only access route--and the CHP is assisting the Azusa and Glendora police departments in using highway checkpoints to apprehend drunk drivers.
Several weekends a year, the agencies pool their resources during "maximum enforcement periods" to crack down on chronic crime problems.
"When I first came up here, I'd stop people, and they'd say, 'I didn't know there were any police up here,' " said Deputy Doug Reimer of the Sheriff's Department. "They don't say that anymore."
The increased patrols also have improved traffic safety on California 39, formerly dubbed a "killer road" because its accident rate was three times the average for mountain highways.
Since 1984, the rate of accidents has been decreasing. There were 118 accidents in 1984 and 84 in 1985. There were 29 in the first five months of this year. More significant, there have been no traffic deaths on the road this year; there were 11 in 1985.
"We've been sending more patrols up there on overtime," said CHP Officer Andre Tate. "When people see all the patrol cars up there, they start to calm down. I think that's why we're seeing fewer accidents."
The agencies also have been successful in curbing alcohol and drug use by teen-agers in turnouts on Glendora Mountain Road, which winds through Angeles National Forest east of San Gabriel Canyon.
Earlier this spring, the county Department of Public Works built berms to close off the turnouts. The county Board of Supervisors enacted an ordinance last month closing the road from 8 p.m. until 8 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays and on nights preceding holidays.