Mud and water flying, 10-year-old Danica Parra gunned her powerful four-wheel all-terrain vehicle through the shallow San Gabriel River and zoomed up the bank, bouncing high in the air before she slammed down hard, nearly spilling.
"Slow down," yelled her father, Augustine Parra of Highland Park. It was Saturday and like thousands of other Southern Californians, the Parras had gone to play in this popular canyon in the Angeles National Forest, just a short drive north up California 39 from Azusa and the San Gabriel Valley.
Nearby, a dozen big-wheeled monster trucks skidded and sloughed through the axle-deep mud and up on the steep, dusty hillsides. Scores of other four-wheel drive pickups and two-wheeled dirt bikes roared around, spewing dust and rocks, as drivers tested their off-road vehicles against the rugged terrain in the Rincon Flats ORV Area.
Overhead a hawk swooped over the trees, a reminder that there is wildlife and wilderness solitude just a short distance from this noisy motorized playground in San Gabriel Canyon. Much of the canyon is rugged and inaccessible, but once past the off-road vehicles area, thousands flock along the highway and river to picnic, swim, hike, fish and shoot firearms.
"We've had as many as 45,000 to 50,000 people a day up here in the canyon, and that's too many," Ranger Roger Richcreek said. Even with the help of Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies and the California Highway Patrol, the situation is never quite under control, he said.
Such crowding, combined with the growing popularity of off-road vehicles, has turned San Gabriel Canyon into a showcase for many of the problems facing U.S. Forest Services officials in Southern California as they work to complete long-term land and resource management plans. These plans, mandated by Congress, will establish how the 154 U. S. forests will be used--decade by decade--for the next 50 years. The four U.S. forests in Southern California are the Angeles National Forest, the Los Padres National Forest, the San Bernardino National Forest and the Cleveland National Forest.
The four forests cover 3.5 million acres, mostly dry, chaparral-covered mountains set aside primarily for watershed and wildlife protection. Because they are so close to an urban population approaching 15 million, they have also become increasingly popular recreation areas. In fact, the Angeles and San Bernardino forests are the most-visited forests in the system nationwide.
"Recreation is the big issue on these (four) forests, that and fire protection," said Zane Smith, the U.S. Forest Service's regional chief who must approve the plans for California's 18 national forests. "And San Gabriel Canyon is the most intensely used area we've got. . . . (There and elsewhere) the ORVs are the most compromising use we face. They are noisy and destructive, but so many people have them and want to use them in the forests. . . . We are not sure what the proper balance should be."
"Balance" is the critical word for forest supervisors as they plan multiple forest uses and monitor the debate among various groups for space and facilities. The debate regarding Southern California forests is centered on recreation--what areas should be developed for what purposes--and which of the lands should be protected as wilderness.
Deeply involved in the debate is a powerful coalition of hunters, fishermen, conservationists and such environmental groups as the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and National Audubon Society. This coalition opposes large increases in off-road vehicle use and the expansion of ski areas. Among the competitors for recreational uses of the lands are those who want more campgrounds, those who seek more hiking trails, bird watchers who want more wilderness, the off-road vehicle users who insist on more motorized trails.
The long-term management plans undergo a lengthy process--the drafting of a preliminary plan, a period for public review and revision of the plan into final form. Then the plans are submitted to the regional chief, who must approve them. Critics then have 45 days to appeal to the U. S. Forest Service chief, Max Peterson. Legal action in federal court becomes an option after that point. The plans establish specific goals for each forest for the next 10 years and broad policies for the following 40 years.
Least Controversial Plan
The Los Padres preliminary plan is under public review. The least controversial of the four, it would more than double the size of its wilderness areas by adding 190,000 acres to that classification and open some of its lands to oil and gas exploration near Santa Paula in Ventura County. Both proposals are bringing strong reaction; off-roaders are upset because they would lose some trails and environmentalists because they oppose the oil and gas exploration.